Pandora Report: 9.23.2022

Happy fall! It’s finally time to enjoy all things pumpkin spice free of judgement. We will save the judgement for professional matters. Speaking of which…does a pandemic end when the US president says it does? Nope! We kick off this week discussing why the COVID-19 pandemic may be ending but is certainly not over. We also discuss new US export limits on fentanyl to Russia, highlights from the UNGA, and more.

When Does a Pandemic End?

Early this week, President Biden stated that “The pandemic is over,” on “60 Minutes.” He continued by saying “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it…but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”

“Everybody” is definitely not “in pretty good shape.” There were 25,202 American COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country the day that President Biden made this statement. The week before his appearance on the show had a 59,856 case 7-day average in the United States, down 71,190 from the week before. This number is also likely low given how many in the US now use at-home testing without reporting positives to public health authorities. Worse, the US averaged 358 COVID-19 deaths that 7-day period, with our national total sitting at 1,047,020 Americans dead from COVID-19 as of September 14. According to estimates by Brookings, around 16 million working-age Americans suffer from long COVID right now, bringing potentially devastating economic and social impacts. While the situation today is better off than the US was with COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic, it is far from over.

Politico wrote of the president’s statement “White House officials on Sunday downplayed Biden’s comments as simply an attempt to reflect where the U.S. is at now, according to Adam— that is, still dealing with Covid but not gripped by a pandemic that is all-consuming. But whether Biden’s phrasing was a gaffe or intentional, the president’s precise words matter for pandemic policy and public health messaging as the U.S. continues its battle with Covid.”

Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CBS “It didn’t make sense from a policy perspective…I don’t want to take away from the fact that the president overall has done a good job as the leader fighting Covid. But you can’t really say the statements are just careless because he said it — I mean, I listened to it — he made a point of saying it twice.”

Politico continued, writing “His remarks also won’t help with the country’s already-struggling booster uptake, Hotez said. The FDA and CDC just authorized a new Covid booster shot, and the White House has pushed Americans to roll up their sleeves for the Omicron-specific vaccine. Earlier this summer, Covid shots became available for young children, but the vaccination rate remains abysmal: Just under 325,000 young children are fully vaccinated across the U.S., according to the CDC.”

The US has also experienced a surge in cases driven by a new variant each winter since 2020. While the US has rolled out bivalent vaccines ahead of the coming winter, only time will tell if this trend will continue, an especially concerning fact given the likelihood of an especially bad flu season on the horizon for the northern hemisphere. Experts like Dr. Hotez remain especially concerned that a new variant is coming and will again wreak havoc in the US.

Hotez and others have also pointed out this is not going to help the president secure the $22.4 billion in additional COVID-response funding the administration is seeking. Predictably, Biden’s declaration triggered partisan response in Congress, with some members demanding that this statement should end measures like DoD’s vaccination requirements and pandemic student loan relief. “This is not a statement you make when you’re trying to persuade the Congress to allocate funds,” Hotez said. “For public health, scientific, policy reasons — not the way to go. He hit the trifecta.”

However, some experts do agree with President Biden’s statement, arguing the US is no longer in the emergency state it was earlier in the pandemic. NPR wrote of Biden’s statement, “It is a reasonable thing to do as we collectively move on from this emergency footing that we’ve been on for the last couple of years, and try to navigate a new normal,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of UCSF’s Department of Medicine. “It’s an appropriate way of thinking about the threat as it stands today.”

So, when does a pandemic end? It definitely isn’t when the US president suddenly says it does, but the answer is still complicated. A pandemic can be considered over when the disease becomes endemic, but that transition isn’t well defined and there is no clear authority to make that judgement call. A pandemic happens when a disease spreads across large regions or world wide, so there is no single leader in charge of declaring it over. Furthermore, the WHO recently refused to say whether or not it will formally recognize an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. A WHO spokesman told CNN “”WHO does not have a mechanism for declaring or ending a “pandemic…’ Instead, he said, WHO will continue to assess the need for the public health emergency, and an expert committee meets every three months to do that.” While the WHO says the world is nearing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Director General still stressed this week that “being able to see the end, doesn’t mean we are at the end.”

This is reflected in US health policy, even as officials stress the country is no longer in the emergency stage. “We are no longer in the emergency phase of the pandemic…we haven’t yet defined what endemicity looks like,” Dr. Ashwin Vasan, NYC Health Commissioner, said at an event with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra this week. Ultimately, while the situation in the United States is undoubtedly better and improving, this is not the time to let up on the gas.

US Limits Exports of Fentanyl to Russia…and Well Plates?

The US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) announced last week that the bureau is applying further restrictions on Belarus and Russia. This move also “…strictly limited the export of fentanyl and related chemicals to Russia, saying that they “may be useful” as chemical weapons to support Russia’s “military aggression,” The Washington Post reports. Under this new rule, fentanyl sales to Russia and Belarus will now require special licensing. This echoes actions taken by the EU this summer to control exports of fentanyl and other related exports to Russia. The 2002 Nord-Ost siege, when Chechen terrorists seized the Dubrovka Theater, culminated with Russian forces filling the theater with an aerosol made from carfentanil and remifentanil, both fentanyl derivatives. This action killed over 100 hostages in the theater in addition to the insurgents, and demonstrated Russia’s interests in these weapons.

In addition to measures controlling quantum computing-related hardware and other matters, the rule released last week specifically “Expands the scope of the Russian industry sector sanctions to add items potentially useful for Russia’s chemical and biological weapons production capabilities and items needed for advanced production and development capabilities that enable advanced manufacturing across a number of industries.” This includes export restrictions on a number of kinds of laboratory equipment that BIS has determined are not manufactured in Russia. The report explains this logic, reading “Therefore, the implementation of restrictive export controls on this equipment by the United States and our allies will economically impact Russia and significantly hinder Russia’s CBW production capabilities.” This list includes items like fermenters and compressors ‘‘specially designed to compress wet or dry chlorine,
regardless of material of construction,” but also well plates and PCR instruments, offering interesting insight into the state of biotech and life sciences research in Russia.

United Nations General Assembly Highlights

The UN General Assembly wraps up its 77th session today following several days of high level engagement, including a speech from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Here are some global health security-related highlights from this session:

Food Security– During a side event on Tuesday, leaders from across Europe, the Americas, and Africa called for immediate funding and action to address the growing food security crisis that has been worsened by Russia’s war in Ukraine. AP reports that “Speaking at a Global Food Security Summit on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly, the leaders demanded an end to the war, with each calling it a needless “aggression” and Spain’s prime minister accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “blackmail” the world with hunger by causing severe disruptions in the export of Ukrainian grain.”

““Russia must end its illegal war against Ukraine, which has certainly been an essential source of the world’s food supply,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told the gathering. “The truth is that Putin is trying to blackmail the international community with a large part of the world’s food needs. We cannot combat hunger without peace. The world is expecting much from us. Let’s act together, and let’s act now.””

The Global FundThe Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria hosted its replenishment conference this week with President Biden, seeking to close its $18 billion funding gap for the next few years. However, the Fund only accumulated $14.25 billion in pledges, though the organization stated it expects the gap will close as more donations come in. The UK and Italy notably delayed their pledges. Sarah Champion discussed this in The Guardian, writing “As the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the UK’s aid watchdog, stated in its recent report: the Global Fund is the project covered by the government’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) that has the greatest value for money. With this in mind, it is hard to believe that the government is choosing to ignore the facts and not fully commit to this cause.”

Non-Communicable Diseases– WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also released a new report, “Invisible Numbers: The true extend of noncommunicable diseases and what to do about them,” urging world leaders to take action on NCDs, which annually are responsible for 17 million premature deaths and cause nearly three quarters of all global deaths. The report’s description explains “Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – chief among them, cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke), cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases – along with mental health, cause nearly three quarters of deaths in the world. Their drivers are social, environmental, commercial and genetic, and their presence is global. Every year 17 million people under the age of 70 die of NCDs, and 86% of them live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).”

Sudan Strain Responsible for Ebola Outbreak in Uganda

Uganda has reported the probable Ebola-related death of a one-year-old , with 11 more suspected cases, one confirmed case, and six more probable cases identified in the country. The WHO reported that Uganda declared an outbreak after a 24-year-old man died after showing symptoms. Samples taken from him were later identified as the relatively rare Sudan strain of Ebola virus, marking the first time this strain has been found in the country. Uganda borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, which recently reported a new case after experiencing its fourteenth outbreak earlier this year. Uganda’s last Ebola outbreak was driven by the Zaire strain in 2019, though the country’s deadliest Ebola outbreak came in 2000, leaving over 200 dead.

The WHO released a statement from Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in which she explained “Uganda is no stranger to effective Ebola control”, she said. “Thanks to its expertise, action has been taken to quickly to detect the virus and we can bank on this knowledge to halt the spread of infections.” The WHO also explained that “Existing vaccines against Ebola have proved effective against the Zaire strain but it is not clear if they will be as successful against the Sudan strain,” in its statement.

“FDA Repeatedly Adapted Emergency Use Authorization Policies To Address the Need for COVID-19 Testing”

The HHS Office of Inspector General released this report this week on FDA’s use of its EUA authority to authorize COVID-19 tests early in the pandemic. The OIG report found that:

“The failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s first test rollout revealed vulnerabilities in the Federal approach to testing early in the COVID-19 pandemic. It is typical for CDC to be the first to receive an EUA, and FDA expected that the CDC’s test would meet the early testing needs of the nation. However, CDC’s first test was unusable for many for weeks while no other test was authorized. Furthermore, due in part to its limited engagement with the public health labs that were using CDC’s test, FDA was slow to realize that testing by public health labs was far more limited than it initially expected. To address problems with the first authorized COVID-19 test, FDA worked with CDC, including allowing CDC to modify the terms of its original EUA. However, preventing a similar problem from occurring in future emergencies would require actions outside of FDA’s authority alone.

In using its EUA authority, FDA also made calculated decisions to increase availability of COVID-19 testing, but these decisions often came at a potential cost to test quality. FDA authorized tests using lower levels of evidence to support developers struggling to access clinical samples. FDA’s policies allowed diagnostic and serology tests to get on the market quickly; however, that resulted in some problematic tests on the market, requiring further action by FDA.

FDA’s decision to accept all EUA requests resulted in a record number of submissions-often low-quality and from developers lacking experience with FDA’s processes. In response, FDA took steps to support developers and ease its workload, which included issuing EUA guidance, updating templates (submission guides for developers requesting EUA), and adjusting its EUA review process, among others. Some developers still reported being frustrated and confused.”

“Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure”

The House Ways and Means Committee recently released its report analyzing responses to an RFI sent to hospitals, health systems, and health care providers to “better understand how climate events have impacted the health sector, as well as steps the health care industry is taking to address its role in mitigating the climate crisis.” The committee explains that “Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure includes an overview of the role the U.S health system plays in the climate crisis. Part One provides an overview of the problem, description of Chair Neal’s 2022 Request for Information (RFI), and summary statistics from an analysis of survey respondents. Part Two examines how the climate crisis and the prevalence of extreme weather events impact health care organizations. Part Three describes how health care organizations are assessing their climate impact and working to reduce their respective carbon footprints. Part Four summarizes findings and provides a discussion of implications. Part Five is an appendix with survey methodology, limitations, and supplemental tables.”

“Strengthening the Biological Weapon’s Convention’s Contributions to Global Health Security”

This Think Global Health piece discusses false Russian BW allegations and the recent invocation of Article V of the BWC. The authors explain “Russia’s disinformation regarding Ukrainian biological laboratories is intended to distract and divide global attention concerning its reprehensible actions in Ukraine and to generate post hoc justification for its invasion. Russian invocation of Article V risks tainting the BWC consultation mechanism and abusing it to air political grievances and foment distrust. And, like the 1997 consultations, BWC parties reached no consensus, highlighting major challenges to the mechanism in the face of complex geopolitical tensions.”

“Harnessing the Power of Science and Technology Communities for Crisis Response”

The RAND Corporation recently released this Perspective, co-authored by Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, a Biodefense PhD Program alumnus, discussing DHS’s “…ability to leverage science and technology communities to support the use of science, technology, innovation, and analytical capabilities during crisis response.” The abstract explains, “RAND researchers conducted a literature review and discussions with subject-matter experts to understand how these capabilities have been used during past national security crises and how they could be used in the future. In this Perspective, the researchers offer a conceptual framework for employment of the science and technology communities’ capabilities during crisis response. They also present five imperatives that should be considered for providing technical support during a crisis and a concept for how to institutionalize that support. These critical elements form the basis for providing quality technical support to crisis leadership.”

“What is the Future of the Global Health Security Agenda?”

The Pandemic Action Network released this piece last week discussing the future of GHSA, explaining “The GHSA is now at an inflection point. While GHSA has built a strong community, the COVID-19 pandemic has also stress-tested domestic and global health systems and raised questions about the reach, relevance, and impact of this partnership. Despite its success as a forum for collaboration and incubator for health security concepts and networks, GHSA has been less visible as part of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, missing an important opportunity to activate its coordination mechanisms to support global policy discussions on the future of the global health security architecture.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

This Podcast Will Kill You “Episode 105 Down in the Mumps”

From TPWKY: “We’ve covered measles, we’ve taken on rubella, and now we’re finishing up the classic MMR vaccine by exploring the other M: mumps. To some listeners, mumps may be a painful childhood memory while to others it’s just a letter in a vaccine they were too young to remember getting. But by the end of this episode, we promise that you’ll all be much more familiar with this strange little virus. How does the mumps virus make you sick and give you that classic swollen face look? What is so bad about the mumps that Maurice Hilleman decided to snag a mumps sample from his sick daughter to make a vaccine? Where do we stand with mumps today and what do declining vaccination rates have to do with those not-so-great numbers? Tune in to hear our take on all these questions and many more in this classic TPWKY episode.” Listen here.

National Biodefense Science Board Public Meeting

The National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) is hosting its next public meeting on September 29 at 11 am ET. “This public meeting of the NBSB will focus on several topics, including the collection, analysis, and sharing of operational health data and/or development and implementation of systems to ensure the availability of virtual healthcare (telehealth, telemedicine, etc.) during a disaster. The NBSB is particularly concerned with the impacts of COVID-19 on rural and underserved communities, including the ways in which those communities succeeded or were challenged in conducting a public health response, and ways in which HHS can support strengthening of systems, technologies, and partnerships that will lead to improvements in data collection and virtual care during disasters.” Learn more and register here.

Introducing the Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences: Mitigating Biorisks and Governing Dual-Use

The WHO is offering this open webinar on 3 October 2022, 13:30-14:30 CEST, where an expert panel will introduce the recently released global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences: mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research and discuss its applications for different stakeholders. The panel will include a number of WHO experts as well as Drs. Anita Cicero and Filippa Lentzos. Learn more and register here.

Interested in Studying Biodefense? Come to Our Information Session!

Are you a Pandora Report reader who just can’t get enough? Consider applying to the Schar School’s Biodefense Program, which offers several graduate certificates, an MS in Biodefense (both in-person and online), and a PhD in Biodefense if you’re really into this. On October 11 at 12 pm ET you can join us virtually to learn more about admissions for the MS and graduate certificates, including info on the application process, student experiences, and graduate outcomes. Register here.

iGEM Responsibility Conference: Navigating the Future of Synthetic Biology

“For the first time ever, iGEM’s Responsibility Program is running a dedicated Responsibility Conference on the margins of this year’ s Grand Jamboree. The theme is ‘Navigating the future of synthetic biology’. The event is taking place from 26-27 October 2022 at the Paris Expo, Porte de Versailles, Paris, France. Join policy makers, technical experts, and other experts from around the world in exploring: Safe, secure, & responsible synbio beyond containment; Negotiating competing ideas of doing good; Applied biosafety & biosecurity; Lessons for governance of emerging technologies. If you are interested in taking part in this exciting new event, please register your interest online here, or contact us directly at responsibility@igem.org.”

Pathogens Project Launched

This week, “a group of scientists and public health leaders, convened by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, launched an international taskforce to consider trends and oversight of high-risk pathogen research. This follows the WHO’s recent release of the “Global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences: mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research.”

“Over the next few months, the initiative on “Creating the Framework for Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research” will discuss risk assessment and mitigation, including lab-based outbreak risks.   A public-facing conference in Geneva, Switzerland on April 19-21, 2023, will include task force members, policy leaders, journalists, scientists, and civic leaders, among others, and will produce a summary report with recommendations for a comprehensive global approach to management of extremely high-risk biological research.”

Read more about the project here.

Pandora Report: 9.16.2022

It has been a busy week and this issue reflects that! We kick this issue off with updates on the conclusion of the Biological Weapons Convention Article V Formal Consultative Meeting in Geneva before getting into everything from the United States’ inclusion on the WHO’s list of countries with circulating vaccine-derived polio (yikes) and new US government health security leadership and funding. As always, there are enough new publications, podcasts and upcoming events to keep you way too busy until next Friday.

BTWC Consultative Meeting Wraps Up

Last Friday, the Biological Weapons Convention Article V Formal Consultative Meeting requested by Russia concluded in Geneva. The meeting was held in response to Russia’s claims that the US supports biological weapons development in Ukraine. The US State Department issued a statement accusing Russia of abusing the consultative meeting process by using it as an international stage to further spread disinformation. The statement reads in part, “The United States delegation, led by Special Representative Kenneth D. Ward, effectively exposed Russia’s disinformation tactics and dispelled Russia’s spurious allegations seeking to malign peaceful U.S. cooperation with Ukraine.”

“In the presence of delegations from 89 countries, the United States and Ukraine presented a thorough, in-depth series of presentations that strongly refuted Russia’s absurd and false claims of U.S. biological weapons development and bio-labs in Ukraine. Technical experts from the U.S. and Ukrainian delegations unambiguously explained their cooperation and U.S. assistance related to public health facilities, biosafety, biosecurity, and disease surveillance as part of the broader U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The United States and Ukraine also highlighted how such activities are consistent with—and further support—the provisions of the BWC, particularly Article X, which promotes cooperation and assistance by States Parties. States Parties affirmed and supported the United States in this regard, with over 35 of the 42 countries that spoke noting the importance of such work.”

Belarus, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe also submitted a joint statement on Friday, showing that the Russians just aren’t ready to give this up-“We have to conclude that the questions as to the military biological activities conducted by the United States in the context of the functioning of biological laboratories on the Ukrainian territory still remain unresolved. We have not received exhaustive explanations that could completely allay the doubts concerning the said activities and thus straighten out the situation that had prompted the Russian side to convene the Consultative meeting under BTWC Article V. This is regrettable.”

The statement later continued, “In addition, given the outcomes of the Consultative meeting as well as to facilitate the resolution of the existing situation, we call for making use of all opportunities available within the framework of the BTWC, including the mechanism under Article VI of the Convention.”

Article VI of the convention is the provision of “Right to request the United Nations Security Council to investigate alleged breaches of the BWC, and undertaking to cooperate in carrying out any investigation initiated by the Security Council.”

Though China’s Xi Jinping has yet to officially back Russia’s claims, his representative at the consultative meeting, Li Song, said “China was “deeply concerned” about the allegations and called for an independent international investigation of the United States’ activities involving biological research,” according to the New York Times. “My delegation believes that a series of specific questions raised by Russia have not yet received pointed response from the U.S.,” Li said in a statement provided by the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.

What Purpose Does This Disinformation Serve?

While Soviet and, later, Russian disinformation surrounding US BW programs (or the lack thereof) is nothing new, it is important to understand what purposes it serves. With Russian claims about supposed US BW work in Ukraine doing everything from developing an ethnic bioweapon to target Russians to training birds to deliver biological weapons, these claims are broad and have far-reaching consequences. For starters, these claims help the Russians justify and legitimize the invasion of Ukraine to their people by offering a threat to the homeland that justifies the severe cost this has had for the country.

However, claims like this also damage public health, especially since the facilities targeted by this disinformation, both in Ukraine and other countries assisted by the United States’ Cooperative Threat Reduction program, are those with important public health missions. This was the case when allegations were aimed at the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia, home to the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Prevention and US Army Medical Research Directorate-Georgia. The Lugar Center was instrumental in Georgia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, shoring up diagnostic capability for the country. Targeting facilities with such important missions, especially when they are well-documented to be working on strictly peaceful work, undermines their legitimate service to the public and their role in protecting health security globally.

Furthermore, the RAND Corporation’s John V. Parachini explains, “It’s tempting to write off such claims as cartoonish propaganda. But Russia is also making similarly outrageous claims to the United Nations and other international forums, and that’s more serious. Such maneuvers could dangerously undermine international arms control agreements.” He also explains of Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UNSC Vassily Nebenzia’s claims about Ukraine that “What the ambassador failed to mention was that Russian scientists visited these same laboratories in the past and never noted anything like what Russian officials now claim. Moreover, the United States had been collaborating with Russia in the same way—providing similar assistance to Russia to refocus the activities of former Soviet biological weapons laboratories, until Russia pulled out of the program in 2014, the same year it invaded Crimea.”

United States Added to WHO’s List of Countries with Circulating Vaccine-Derived Poliovirus

At one point in the 1940s, polio disabled an average of over 35,000 Americans annually. However, thanks to a robust vaccination push, the Pan American Health Organization announced in 1994 that “…three years had passed since the last case of wild polio in the Americas. A three-year-old Peruvian boy, Luis Fermín, had the last registered case there.” There have been no cases of polio originating in the US caused by wild poliovirus since 1979. However, wild poliovirus has been brought into the country by travelers, with the last occurrence in 1993.

This week, “CDC…announced that polioviruses found in New York, both from the case of paralytic polio in an unvaccinated adult in Rockland County and in several wastewater samples from communities near the patient’s residence, meet the World Health Organization (WHO)’s criteria for circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) – meaning that poliovirus continues to be transmitted in Rockland County, NY, and surrounding areas.”

The press release continued, “CDC is working closely with WHO, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and other international public health partner organizations. As previously reported, the virus’ genetic sequences from the patient from Rockland County, NY, and wastewater specimens collected in New York have been linked to wastewater samples in Jerusalem, Israel, and London, UK, indicating community transmission. The viral sequences from the patient and from three wastewater specimens had enough genetic changes to meet the definition of a vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV).  These two things – one individual with VDPV and at least one detection of a related VDPV in an environmental sample – meet WHO’s definition of cVDPV, and CDC submitted this data to WHO for inclusion on its list of countries with cVDPV. There are global recommendations for countries with cVDPV2 outbreaks to protect people from polio, and the United States is taking all appropriate actions to prevent new cases of paralysis.”

While polio spreading in wealthy countries is concerning, check out Leslie Roberts’ article in Science news-“Polio is back in rich countries, but it poses a far bigger threat to developing world”.

US Announces Investments in Bioeconomy and Commits to Improving Biosecurity…Sorta?

Late this week, the White House announced $2 billion in “new investments and resources to advance President Biden’s National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative.” The funding aims to expand domestic biomanufacturing, help bring new bio-products to market, train future generations of biotechnologists, and “drive regulatory innovation to increase access to products of biotechnology,” among other goals. However, the fact sheet also discusses the goal to “reduce risk through investing in biosecurity innovations,” which states that “DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration [(NNSA)] plans to initiate a new $20 million bioassurance program that will advance U.S. capabilities to anticipate, assess, detect, and mitigate biotechnology and biomanufacturing risks, and will integrate biosecurity into biotechnology development.”

This has drawn some criticism as $20 million towards biosafety is a small amount of the (1%) of the overall $2 billion in funding announced, particularly with the growing need to address gaps in global biosafety. Furthermore, its placement under the NNSA has brought some concern, particularly as the Office of Defense Nuclear Proliferation, which “works globally to prevent state and non-state actors from developing nuclear weapons or acquiring weapons-usable nuclear or radiological materials, equipment, technology, and expertise,” will be tasked with overseeing the program.

US Government Gets New Health Security Leadership

Dr. Renee Wegrzyn Appointed First Director of Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H)

President Biden appointed Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, a biologist currently at Gingko Bioworks, to lead the recently created Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Biden proposed the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to “improve the U.S. government’s ability to speed biomedical and health research. Public Law 117-103 was enacted on March 15, 2022, authorizing the establishment of ARPA-H within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

STAT reports, “Wegrzyn, 45, currently works at Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, a company focused on biological engineering, but has prior experience in two government agencies Biden has said he hopes to emulate with ARPA-H — the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.” STAT also explains that “Wegrzyn is one of four former DARPA officials that STAT reported in July had been interviewed for the ARPA-H job by White House science adviser Francis Collins. She will not need Senate confirmation for her role but is sure to face scrutiny from lawmakers who have questioned the need for a new health agency, arguing it could replicate efforts at the National Institutes of Health.”

FDA Names Dr. David Kaslow New Director of Office of Vaccines Research and Review

Dr. David Kaslow, Chief Scientific Officer for Essential Medicines and Head of Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access at PATH, will become the FDA’s new director of the Office of Vaccines Research and Review on October 11. “Dr. Kaslow has more than 35 years of experience in vaccine research and development. He joined PATH in 2012 as Director of PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI), leading the development of well-tolerated and effective vaccines against malaria. Prior to joining PATH, he was a Vice President of Vaccines and Infectious Disease at Merck Research Laboratories, while serving in key advisory positions with MVI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” He was also the founder of the NIH’s Malaria Vaccine Development Unit.

His predecessor, Dr. Marion Gruber, retired last year and her deputy, Dr. Philip Krause, left the FDA a month later in November. According to the New York Times, “One reason is that Dr. Gruber and Dr. Krause were upset about the Biden administration’s recent announcement that adults should get a coronavirus booster vaccination eight months after they received their second shot, according to people familiar with their thinking.” Biopharma Dive explains further that “Shortly after the departures were announced, both were listed as co-authors of an article published in The Lancet that then argued against broad rollout of COVID-19 vaccine boosters, at a time when the Biden administration was preparing to begin a booster campaign.”

World Bank and WHO Launch Financial Intermediary Fund (FIF) for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response

This week, World Bank and WHO announced the establishment of the FIF for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. “The fund will provide a dedicated stream of additional, long-term financing to strengthen PPR capabilities in low- and middle-income countries and address critical gaps through investments and technical support at the national, regional, and global levels. The fund will draw on the strengths and comparative advantages of key institutions engaged in PPR, provide complementary support, improve coordination among partners, incentivize increased country investments, serve as a platform for advocacy, and help focus and sustain much-needed, high-level attention on strengthening health systems.” The first round of calls for investments to be funded by the FIF will be available in November this year.

United Nations General Assembly Passes Resolution A/76/L.76%20

The UNGA earlier this month passed Resolution A/76/L.76%20 calling on the 78th UNGA to hold a high-level meeting on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. Among other things, the resolution states, “Recognizing that health is a precondition for and an outcome and indicator of all three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – of sustainable development and that, despite progress made, challenges in global health, including major inequities and vulnerabilities within and among countries, regions and populations, still remain and demand persistent and urgent attention,…

  1. Decides to hold a one-day high-level meeting, to be convened by the President of the General Assembly in collaboration with the World Health Organization, and at the level of Heads of State and Government, by no later than the last day of the general debate of the Assembly at its seventy-eighth session, to adopt a succinct political declaration aimed at, inter alia, mobilizing political will at the national, regional and international levels for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response;
  2. Recommends that the President of the General Assembly appoint two co-facilitators to present options and modalities for the high-level meeting, as well as the political declaration.”

The Lancet-“COVID-19 Response: A Massive Global Failure”

With COVID-19 deaths the lowest they have been since March 2020, the Lancet released its much anticipated commission report and accompanying infographic this week discussing global failures in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendations for improvement. The report explains “The Commission delivers a number of recommendations that are divided into three main areas. First, practical steps to finally control and understand the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, realistic, feasible, and necessary investments to strengthen the first line of defence against emerging infectious agents in countries by strengthening health systems and widening universal health coverage. Third, ambitious proposals to ignite a renaissance in multilateralism, integrating the global response to the risk of future pandemics with actions to address the climate crisis and reversals in sustainable development.”

“Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences: Mitigating Biorisks and Governing Dual-Use Research”

This week, the WHO released the Global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences, which calls on leaders and other stakeholders to “mitigate biorisks and safely govern dual-use research, which has a clear benefit but can be misused to harm humans, other animals, agriculture and the environment.” According to the WHO’s press release, “This is the first global, technical and normative framework for informing the development of national frameworks and approaches for mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research,” and “The Framework addresses the decades-long challenges of preventing the accidental and deliberate misuse of biology and other life sciences, as well as how to manage governance and oversight to both accelerate and spread innovation, while mitigating negative impacts. The life sciences are increasingly crossing over with other fields, such as chemistry, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, which changes the landscape of risks, with those that span multiple sectors and disciplines more likely to be missed.” The Schar School’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz contributed to several of the working groups formed in the creation of this framework.

“100 Days of Monkeypox: Evaluating the U.S. Response to the Emerging Global Outbreak”

Dr. Daniel P. Regan, a biomedical engineer and a Fellow at the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons, recently authored this Council on Strategic Risks briefer on the United States’ first 100 days dealing with monkeypox. The brifer “…details the early dynamics of the outbreak, evaluates the testing, vaccination, and therapeutic rollout, and provides an outlook and analysis meant to help the United States prevent and address similar biological threats.”

“Differential Technology Development: A Responsible Innovation Principle for Navigating Technology Risks”

This article, available as a pre-print on SSRN, discusses differential technology development  and its potential benefits for private and government research funding and technology regulations. The abstract reads “Responsible innovation efforts to date have largely focused on shaping individual technologies. However, as demonstrated by the preferential advancement of low-emission technologies, certain technologies reduce risks from other technologies or constitute low-risk substitutes. Governments and other relevant actors may leverage risk-reducing interactions across technology portfolios to mitigate risks beyond climate change. We propose a responsible innovation principle of “differential technology development”, which calls for leveraging risk-reducing interactions between technologies by affecting their relative timing. Thus, it may be beneficial to delay risk-increasing technologies and preferentially advance risk-reducing defensive, safety, or substitute technologies. Implementing differential technology development requires the ability to anticipate or identify impacts and intervene in the relative timing of technologies. We find that both are sometimes viable and that differential technology development may still be usefully applied even late in the diffusion of a harmful technology. A principle of differential technology development may inform government research funding priorities and technology regulation, as well as philanthropic research and development funders and corporate social responsibility measures. Differential technology development may be particularly promising to mitigate potential catastrophic risks from emerging technologies like synthetic biology and artificial intelligence.”

“Over Half of Known Human Pathogenic Diseases Can be Aggravated by Climate Change”

While Mora et al.’s August article re-confirms what we intuitively know, it offers a sobering reminder and quantification of the immense risks unchecked climate change brings. Their abstract explains “It is relatively well accepted that climate change can affect human pathogenic diseases; however, the full extent of this risk remains poorly quantified. Here we carried out a systematic search for empirical examples about the impacts of ten climatic hazards sensitive to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on each known human pathogenic disease. We found that 58% (that is, 218 out of 375) of infectious diseases confronted by humanity worldwide have been at some point aggravated by climatic hazards; 16% were at times diminished. Empirical cases revealed 1,006 unique pathways in which climatic hazards, via different transmission types, led to pathogenic diseases. The human pathogenic diseases and transmission pathways aggravated by climatic hazards are too numerous for comprehensive societal adaptations, highlighting the urgent need to work at the source of the problem: reducing GHG emissions.”

Dr. Jennifer Doudna Authors Piece on the Benefits of Gene Editing

Dr. Jennifer Doudna, a pioneering American biochemist who received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR gene editing, recently authored a piece in the Atlantic, “Starting a CRISPR Revolution Isn’t Enough,” discussing the great strides and improvements that the technology has experienced in recent years. She covers the origins of modern biotechnology from the 1970s onwards before moving on to the growing CRISPR economy, which was valued at $5.2 billion in 2020, and what investments she thinks governments and research organizations need to make today to ensure the benefits of the technology are broad in application. She also cautions that “Powerful technology, of course, comes with the potential for misuse, and CRISPR’s powers raise important questions…These strategies could help fight the spread of invasive species and devastating diseases such as malaria, but without careful assessment and governance, they could also pose a risk to whole ecosystems.”

She further elaborates on this in her discussion of the “CRISPR babies” scandal that resulted from He Jiankui’s work editing the genomes of viable human embryos that later became twin children. She explains the need for regulations to prevent such use of the technology, writing “Without these guardrails, we may not only harm humans and our environment, but also risk societal backlash against the very technologies that could preserve and improve our health and make our planet more livable.”

While Dr. Doudna focuses primarily on the benefits of this technology, it does bring significant security concerns as discussed by the Schar School’s Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley in her award-winning paper, “From CRISPR babies to super soldiers: challenges and security threats posed by CRISPR,“ and by Dr. Gregory Koblentz and his co-authors in their report, “Editing Biosecurity: Needs and Strategies for Governing Genome Editing“.

“Conspiracy Theories About COVID-19 Help Nobody”

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Michael Worobey, department head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, recently published an argument piece in Foreign Policy discussing how COVID-19 conspiracy theories harm us all. They focus on ” the idea that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was engineered in a laboratory” and the appointment of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, who they describe as “a Columbia University economist with no expertise in virology, evolution, epidemiology, or public health,” as the chair of the Lancet‘s COVID-19 commission.

They write, “Although biosafety and biosecurity are of paramount importance, especially to virologists who actually handle these dangerous pathogens, they are irrelevant to the zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2 and polarize an ongoing discussion that must occur in a multidisciplinary, bipartisan way. Fictional origin stories that politicize regulating essential research only serve to remove the science from a necessarily scientific discourse…The suspicion cast on virologists and epidemiologists is profoundly harmful.”

Rasmussen and Worobey were co-authors of the two Science papers released this summer that strongly supported the idea that SARS-CoV-2 is zoonotic in origin and initially infected people naturally at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan-“The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2” and “The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.” They also authored an opinion piece discussing this work in plain language for the Globe and Mail in July that is available here.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

Radiolab: 40,000 Recipes for Murder

The Schar School’s Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was interviewed on NPR’s Radiolab. The episode, 40,000 Recipes for Murder, asks the question, “Two scientists realize that the very same AI technology they have developed to discover medicines for rare diseases can also discover the most potent chemical weapons known to humankind. Inadvertently opening the Pandora’s Box of WMDs. What should they do now?” Listen here.

The Retort Episode 3: The Evolving Chemical and Biological Weapon Challenge

In this episode, Dr. Edwards talks with Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, founder of The Trench, about developments leading to modern CBW, the development of modern international law, and current and emerging challenges in this area. Read Dr. Zanders blog about it here and watch/listen to the episode here.

Interested in Studying Biodefense? Come to Our Information Session!

Are you a Pandora Report reader who just can’t get enough? Consider applying to the Schar School’s Biodefense Program, which offers several graduate certificates, an MS in Biodefense (both in-person and online), and a PhD in Biodefense if you’re really into this. On October 11 at 12 pm ET you can join us virtually to learn more about admissions for the MS and graduate certificates, including info on the application process, student experiences, and graduate outcomes. Register here.

Monkeypox: Have We Learned Anything from COVID-19?

“The Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University will host a panel discussion entitled Monkeypox: Have we learned anything from COVID-19?, featuring moderator Dr. Gerald Parker and panelists Drs. Robert Carpenter, Syra Madad, Jennifer A. Shuford, and Bob Kadlec. Dr. Gerald Parker will moderate a panel of experts, including Drs. Robert Carpenter, Syra Madad, Jennifer A. Shuford, and Bob Kadlec, as they explore the Monkeypox outbreak. Recently declared a public health crisis by the federal government, Monkeypox is the thing on everyone’s mind. The panel will answer questions such as: Are we making the same mistakes with Monkeypox as we did with COVID-19? How can we do better with this and future pandemic threats? Is this something we need to be concerned about? And more. This will be a hybrid event. It will take place in person in Hagler Auditorium in the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center and virtually via zoom, (link available upon registration) and will start promptly at 5:30 PM CT.” Register online to attend.

Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats

On Tuesday, September 20 from 9:00am–10:30am ET, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) will host a webinar entitled “Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats.” n this webinar, experts will discuss the changing biological threat landscape and some key avenues to improve preparedness and response capabilities for addressing future biological threats. The webinar will begin with a keynote address from Dr. David Christian Hassell. As Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Hassell will share his expertise and vision on how the United States may continue to build on successes and opportunities to address future biological threats. A panel discussion will follow Dr. Hassell’s address featuring Dr. Pardis Sabeti, Professor at the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University, who will share her ongoing work in biosurveillance and pathogen early warning and Dr. Akhila Kosaraju, CEO and President of Phare Bio, who will discuss the role of the private-sector in developing medical countermeasures and other technologies for reducing biological threats. You can register to attend here.

iGEM Responsibility Conference: Navigating the Future of Synthetic Biology

“For the first time ever, iGEM’s Responsibility Program is running a dedicated Responsibility Conference on the margins of this year’ s Grand Jamboree. The theme is ‘Navigating the future of synthetic biology’. The event is taking place from 26-27 October 2022 at the Paris Expo, Porte de Versailles, Paris, France. Join policy makers, technical experts, and other experts from around the world in exploring: Safe, secure, & responsible synbio beyond containment; Negotiating competing ideas of doing good; Applied biosafety & biosecurity; Lessons for governance of emerging technologies. If you are interested in taking part in this exciting new event, please register your interest online here, or contact us directly at responsibility@igem.org.”

Post-Pandemic Recovery: From What, For Whom, and How?

“The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security invites you to a webinar on “Post-Pandemic Recovery: From What, For Whom, and How?” to be held on October 4 and October 6, 2022, 12:00-2:30pm ET. During this online symposium, we will engage a broad community of practitioners in discussions about operationalizing a holistic process of post-pandemic recovery: What systems can local jurisdictions set up and strengthen that sustain the long view on getting through and past the pandemic, reverse the social determinants of uneven impacts, and develop resilience to future public health emergencies?

On Day 1, representatives from diverse sectors will diagnose tangible harms from COVID-19 (urgent and enduring), prescribing remedies that can facilitate a comprehensive post-pandemic recovery. On Day 2, community advocates and practitioners will describe their experiences in planning for post-pandemic recovery in their jurisdictions, sharing lessons learned for peers elsewhere. A full list of speakers can be found in the agenda. The symposium kicks off a larger project, sponsored by the Open Philanthropy Project, that supports local decision makers in assessing COVID-19 recovery efforts.” Please register here.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity Virtual Meeting

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), chaired by Dr. Gerald Parker, Associate Dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University, will host a virtual meeting on September 21 at 1 pm ET. The meeting will include a working group update on Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight (P3CO) policy review and more with an opportunity for public comments. Read the preliminary draft findings and recommendations here and access the webcast here.

ICYMI: September 1 White House Webinar on the Annual Report of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan

Earlier this month, the Biden administration hosted a webinar to discuss the first Annual Report of the American Pandemic Pandemic Preparedness Plan. Check it out on the White House YouTube channel.

Smithsonian’s Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World Exhibit to Close October 3

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s temporary exhibit, Outbreak, is scheduled to close permanently next month following its four-year run. The exhibit helps guests “Learn how to think like an epidemiologist—find the connections between human, animal, and environmental health in an interactive simulation; Reflect on personal memories and photos from disease survivors and frontline healthcare workers; and Work cooperatively with other visitors to contain an outbreak before it spreads further in a multi-player game.” While this exhibit is closing, the Smithsonian plans to offer a new One Health webinar series this fall and you can still apply to be granted access to the DIY version of the exhibit for show anywhere in the world! Also, if you can’t make it to DC in time for the closure, check out the virtual tour available here.

Pandora Report: 9.2.2022

Happy Labor Day Weekend! This week we cover the Biden administration’s first annual report on the progress of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, German officials’ searches of several companies suspected to be exporting restricted chemicals to Russian companies, and more. We also discuss several new publications, including a RAND Corporation ebook discussing North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, and several upcoming events–the most exciting of which are the Biodefense Program’s upcoming open houses for prospective graduate students!

United States Announces First Death of Monkeypox Patient

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) announced the first death of someone diagnosed with monkeypox this week, though Healio reports officials have not determined if the disease was the person’s cause of death or not. “The adult, who died on Aug. 28 at a hospital in Harris County, had “various severe illnesses [and] was also presumptive positive for monkeypox,” according to Harris County Public Health. DSHS stated that the patient was severely immunocompromised and that autopsy results should be available in the coming days. “Monkeypox is a serious disease, particularly for those with weakened immune systems,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS Commissioner. “We continue to urge people to seek treatment if they have been exposed to monkeypox or have symptoms consistent with the disease.”

White House Releases Annual Report on American Pandemic Preparedness Plan

Yesterday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released the first Annual Report on Progress Towards Implementation of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, detailing matters like investment priorities and areas needing the most attention in the coming years. The report documents progresses made in implementing transformational capabilities in the areas of: transforming our medical defenses, ensuring situational awareness, strengthening public health systems, building core capabilities, and managing the mission. It also identifies “utilizing current infectious disease health challenges to “exercise” pandemic preparedness” and “achieving a ‘portfolio view’ of U.S. government pandemic preparedness investment to ensure readiness and maximize impact” as key goals. To achieve these goals, the document identifies numerous smaller goals, ranging in everything from developing flexible vaccine administration techniques to developing standard efficacy testing methods for air treatment technologies.

FDA Authorizes Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccines

The FDA announced this week that the emergency use authorizations in place for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines were amended to authorize bivalent versions for use as a single booster dose at least two months after primary or booster vaccination. This comes as we near fall, during which it is predicted that the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant, which are currently causing most US COVID-19 cases, will circulate heavily. FDA explained in a press release “The bivalent vaccines, which we will also refer to as “updated boosters,” contain two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of SARS-CoV-2 virus, one of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 and the other one in common between the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.” Moderna’s bivalent offering is authorized for use in those 18 and older, while Pfizer’s is authorized for those over 12.

‘“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) of COVID-19,”’ said FDA Commissioner, Dr. Robert M. Califf. ‘“As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.”’

Science published answers to FAQs regarding these vaccines, explaining the authorization process, the data the companies collected in creating these boosters, and the benefits they offer.

German Officials Conduct Raids on Companies Exporting Dual-Use Chemicals to Russia

Earlier this week, German customs officials conducted searches of multiple company facilities across the country on suspicion that the companies have been sending export-restricted materials, including a precursor of Novichok, to Russian companies known to work with the Russian military and intelligence services.

The core company in the network, Riol Chemie GmbH, completed more than 30 shipments of different chemicals and lab equipment to Russia-based Chimmed Group over the course of the last few years without proper export permits. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, “Chimmed is a wholesaler of such goods, and Russian media have reported that its customers include the military and intelligence services.”

Tagesschau explained further that “In the course of the attack on Navalny, the company Riol Chemie GmbH was already in the focus of Western intelligence services. After the assassination, the United States imposed sanctions on Russian state officials and issued export restrictions for a dozen companies. The list, which was not adopted by the EU, also includes Riol Chemie, which has now been searched. The Russian chemical wholesaler Khmmed [Chimmed], which Riol Chemie apparently supplied according to the investigation, also ended up on the list.”

Multiple Countries Issue Joint Statement on “the Contribution of Cooperative Threat Reduction Partnerships to Global Health Security”

The Governments of the United States of America, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Liberia, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Ukraine released this statement this week in light of the opening of the consultative meeting requested by Russia to discuss its false claims that the US is running a network of BW facilities in Ukraine. The statement reads, “The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of strong national capacities for infectious disease surveillance, diagnosis, and response. International cooperation and assistance play a critical role in building these capacities. Our governments have partnered openly and transparently through the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. These partnerships are devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes; they have nothing to do with weapons. These partnerships protect the health of humans and animals in our countries, including in the prevention, detection, and control of infectious disease outbreaks, and in enhancing laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. As partners in this program, we each have firsthand knowledge of its relevance to our shared goal of cooperating to strengthen global health security and reduce the impacts of infectious diseases on our societies. Our governments strongly affirm the common view that such cooperation should not be undermined, but rather promoted and reinforced. Pursuant to Article X, we encourage all Biological Weapons Convention States Parties to work together, including at the forthcoming Review Conference, in support of this goal.”

Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors’ Group on Nuclear Safety and Security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant

The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group issued a statement this week reiterating the G7 Foreign Ministers August 10 statement in “support of the IAEA’s efforts to promote nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.” The statement explains, “The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group remains profoundly concerned by the serious threat the continued control of Ukrainian nuclear facilities by Russian armed forces pose to the safety and security of these facilities. These actions significantly raise the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endanger the population of Ukraine, neighbouring states, and the international community. The Russian Federation must immediately withdraw its troops from within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and respect Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty. We reaffirm that the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and the electricity that it produces rightly belong to Ukraine and stress that attempts by Russia to disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian power grid would be unacceptable. We underline that Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant should not be used for military activities or the storage of military material.”

The statement also reads, “As founders of the G7-led Global Partnership, we have worked together with Ukraine for more than 20 years to increase the safety and security of its nuclear facilities. We therefore have a particular responsibility to support international efforts aimed at sustaining these facilities and assisting Ukraine in countering the serious risks Russia’s war of aggression poses to the safety and security of Ukrainian nuclear installations.”

It concludes with “We deeply regret that Russia blocked consensus at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference because it refused to accept responsibility for the grave situation around the safeguards, safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. This cannot be seen as an act of good faith. Every other NPT state supported the draft outcome. Even though it was not adopted, it provides a solid blueprint for progress on all three NPT pillars.”

“Characterizing the Risks of North Korean Chemical and Biological Weapons, Electromagnetic Pulse, and Cyber Threats”

The RAND Corporation recently published this free ebook discussing the DPRK’s WMD capabilities. “The authors present a theory of deterrence and suggest how the ROK-U.S. alliance could rein in North Korean efforts to augment or enhance its WMD and cyber capabilities and deter the North from attacking the ROK and beyond. Throughout, the authors acknowledge the uncertainties involved and argue that any effective action on the part of the ROK-U.S. alliance will require recognizing and managing those uncertainties.”

“Learning, Relearning, and Not Learning the Lessons of COVID-19”

Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, an alumnus of the Biodefense Program, recently published this OpEd in The Hill. In it, he “…makes the case that to date, there has been no coherent national discussion on the COVID-19 gaps and shortfalls we experienced in our national pandemic preparedness and response systems. These concerns cut across federal departments and agencies; state and local governments; and the private sector, and therefore need to be considered and coordinated across all of these stakeholders.” He further explains, “However, at lower levels changes—policy, organizational and resource decisions—are being implemented piecemeal. Furthermore, despite two and a half years of living through COVID-19, as the money pox outbreak demonstrates we continue to flounder, often repeating the same mistakes. In short, we are “learning, relearning and not learning the lessons of COVID-19.”

“Controlling Chemical Weapons in the New International Order”

National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) recently published this edition of CSWMD Proceedings. In it, “Mr. John Caves, CSWMD Distinguished Fellow, and Dr. Seth Carus, NDU Emeritus Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy examine the breakdown in consensus decision-making at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and place this development in the context of Russia, China, and Iran’s larger challenge to a rules-based international order. The article further considers how this dynamic may play out in the OPCW in the coming years and discusses how the United States can continue to use the Chemical Weapons Convention and OPCW to defend the international norm against chemical weapons while better protecting itself and its allies and partners from a greater chemical weapons threat.”

“Optimizing and Unifying Infection Control Precautions for Respiratory Viral Infections”

The Journal of Infectious Diseases recently published this piece by Klompas and Rhee discussing current guidelines on respiratory precautions for healthcare workers. In it, they argue “…it is high time to modify infection control guidelines for respiratory viruses to recognize that that their transmission is more alike than different and that most transmission is attributable to aerosol inhalation. We recommend switching from the current confusing and non-evidence-based mosaic of different precautions for different viruses to one universal set of respiratory viral precautions that includes wearing gowns, gloves, eye protection, and fitted respirators in well-ventilated spaces.”

“Latest from the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, Issue 3: Summer 2022”

The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence recently released the latest edition of its newsletter recently. This one introduces a new section by the Assistant Director-General for Health Emergency Intelligence, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, and a new collaboration with the Hasso Plattner Institute. It also provides updates on the WHO’s monkeypox response and upcoming events sponsored by the Hub.

“Three Solutions for Public Health—And One Dangerous Idea”

Dr. Tom Frieden, who directed the CDC during the Obama administration, recently published an opinion piece in the Atlantic discussing the way forward for his former agency. In it, he writes, “But even if the CDC’s proposed reforms succeed, much of what’s broken is outside of the agency’s control. The United States suffers from chronic underfunding of local, city, and state public-health departments; a health-care system that is not structured to provide consistent care to patients; lack of standardization across states for collecting and reporting anonymized data for disease detection and response; and a broad increase in political polarization that shrinks the space for nonpartisan action and organizations. White House actions under both Republican and Democratic administrations have undermined the CDC’s credibility, its freedom to speak directly to the media and public, and the public’s perception of its scientific independence.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

The Lawfare Podcast: Sean Ekins and Filippa Lentzos on a Teachable Moment for Dual-Use

“Back in March, a team of researchers published an article in Nature Machine Intelligence showing that a drug discovery company’s AI-powered molecule generator could have a dangerous dual use: The model could design thousands of new biochemical weapons in a matter of hours that were equally as toxic as, if not more toxic than, the nerve agent VX.

Lawfare associate editor Tia Sewell sat down with two of the paper’s authors: Dr. Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science & international security at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and Dr. Sean Ekins, CEO of Collaborations Pharmaceuticals. They discussed the story of their discovery and their reaction to it, as well as how we should think about dual-use artificial intelligence threats more broadly as new technologies expand the potential for malicious use. They also got into why governments need to work more proactively to address the challenges of regulating machine learning software.” Find this episode here.

Technologically Speaking Episode 7: Speed Up the Cleanup

DHS S&T’s podcast “Technologically Speaking has a sobering and important conversation about preparing for chemical and biological contamination. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, the impact of such an event would be staggering. S&T exists, in part, to research and test tools for complex cleanup scenarios that require acting quickly, efficiently and with confidence that hazardous material, like anthrax, is decontaminated. Guest Dr. Don Bansleben, a program manager at S&T specializing in chemical and biological threat detection, talks about the current work S&T is doing with U.S. government partners to prepare for these scenarios.” Find this episode and others here.

Public Health On Call Episode 512: FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf on Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccines, Combatting Misinformation, and Building Trust

From Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health-“Throughout COVID-19, the FDA has been among many government agencies charged with communicating lifesaving information. Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf talks with Dr. Josh Sharfstein about how the politicization of the pandemic raised the stakes for the FDA and how the agency is learning to adapt in an age of rampant misinformation. They also discuss the FDA’s consideration of bivalent vaccines for authorization and what’s next for the pandemic response.” Check it out here.

Interested in Studying Biodefense? Come to Our Information Sessions!

Are you a Pandora Report reader who just can’t get enough? Consider applying to the Schar School’s Biodefense Program, which offers several graduate certificates, an MS in Biodefense (both in-person and online), and a PhD in Biodefense if you’re really into this. On September 15 at 7 pm ET AND October 11 at 12 pm ET, you can join us virtually to learn more about admissions for the MS and graduate certificates, including info on the application process, student experiences, and graduate outcomes. On September 13 at 7 pm ET, prospective PhD students are invited to the Schar School PhD Virtual Open House to learn about the school’s different doctoral programs and hear from faculty members.

Public Meeting-Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

The 21st PACCARB public meeting is tentatively being planned as an in-person event on September 12 and 13 from 9-5 pm ET each day. The meeting will focus on pandemic preparedness and AMR policy. This meeting is open to the public. Members of the public can choose to attend in-person (attendance will be limited) or view the meeting via webcast. The meeting will be held at the Tysons Corner Marriott, 8028 Leesburg Pike, Tysons Corner, Virginia, 22182. Learn more and register here.

Protecting Genetic Information Against Cyber Threats

Join CRDF Global for this event on September 13 at 10 am ET. “Our current lack of genetic information security is more than just an issue for privacy. Our adversaries’ access to our genetic data can be used to find and exploit weaknesses. Genetic data would be required for a bioweapon to be developed against a specific ethnic group or an individual. For tracking a pandemic or potential bioweapon, genetic data from a pathogen must be generated. This pathogen’s genetic data could then be used to recreate and/or enhance its potential. To protect against these threats, we need a genetic information system that protects human and pathogen information from exfiltration. Our current lab environment lacks appropriate cybersecurity, and enhancing lab cybersecurity is no simple task. Join us as will discuss these threats and what can be done to mitigate them.” Learn more and register here.

Monkeypox: Have We Learned Anything from COVID-19?

The Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University will be hosting an event on monkeypox later this month. “Dr. Gerald Parker will moderate a panel of experts, including Drs. Robert Carpenter, Syra Madad, Jennifer A. Shuford, and Robert Kadlec, as they explore the Monkeypox phenomenon. Recently declared a public health crisis by the federal government, Monkeypox is the thing on everyone’s mind. The panel will answer questions such as: Are we making the same mistakes with Monkeypox as we did with COVID-19? How can we do better with this and future pandemic threats? Is this something we need to be concerned about? And more.” This event will take place on September 19 at 5:30 pm CT. Register for the virtual event at tx.ag/dgxNOXU.

Global Patterns of COVID-19-related Violence Against Health Workers

“In many countries, the pandemic has increased violence against physicians, nurses, and other health care providers, partly due to widespread fear and mis/disinformation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Human Rights will gather experts from the global health community for a virtual session examining this worrying development, along with strategies being taken to protect and safeguard the rights of health personnel. The session will include discussion of a recent report by the International Council of Nurses, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Hospital Federation, and World Medical Association on current practices to prevent, reduce, or mitigate violence against health care.” This event will take place on September 21 at 10 am ET. Register here.

Complexity of Pandemics No 2-Exploring Insights from the Social Sciences for Collaborative Intelligence

Join Prof. Michael Bang Petersen (Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark and Founder of the HOPE project), Dr. Julienne Ngoundoung Anoko (Focal Point for Social Science / Risk Communication and Community Engagement at the WHO Health Emergencies Programme’s Regional Office for Africa in Dakar, Senegal), Prof. Ilona Kickbusch (Founder and Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva, Switzerland), and Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu (WHO Assistant Director-General for the Division of Health Emergency Intelligence and Surveillance Systems) for a session “devoted to highlighting the importance of integrating insights from the social sciences into public health surveillance approaches to better avert and manage epidemic and pandemic risks.” This event will be livestreamed on the WHO’s YouTube channel on September 22 at 12:30 pm ET.

2022 BSL4ZNet International Conference

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network is hosting its international conference virtually this year from September 8 through October 13. The conference will convene under the overarching theme of Forging ahead stronger: Strengthening zoonotic disease preparedness. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and best practices, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world. Session 4 on October 13 will feature a panel on “The Future of Global Biorisk Management” featuring our own Dr. Greg Koblentz alongside King’s College London’s Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Mayra Ameneiros, Dr. Rocco Casagrande of Gryphon Scientific, and Dr. Loren Matheson of Defence Research and Development Canada. Learn more and register for the conference here.

Biodefense PhD Student Named Druckman Fellow

Danyale Kellogg, a PhD student in the Biodefense Program, was recently named the Schar School’s latest Druckman Fellow. This fellowship is awarded to support a student’s research that falls into areas like global governance, non-military responses to threats to national and international security, and the study of conflict. Kellogg’s research focuses on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in infectious disease outbreak responses, paying particular attention to the PRC’s failures to notify the WHO of outbreaks in accordance with the IHR and threats such issues pose to international security.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Editorial Fellowships Application Now Open

The Bulletin is now accepting application for its editorial fellows through September 15. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will appoint editorial fellows this fall in two coverage areas: climate change and biosecurity. Editorial fellows will have one-year terms, during which time they will be expected to write four (4) articles or columns (i.e., about one article or column per quarter). The fellows will be paid a $750 honorarium per article or column, for a potential total of $3,000. These will be non-resident appointments, i.e. fellows can write for the Bulletin from anywhere. Fellows will not be employees of the Bulletin. These one-year fellowships are renewable, upon excellent performance. Because the Bulletin is an international publication, fellows need not live in the United States.” Learn more and apply here.

Pandora Report: 8.26.2022

Happy Friday, Pandora Report readers! We are back with a big line up this week. We start off with some updates on monkeypox, COVID-19, CDC and DHS re-organizations, concerns about protecting genomic information, the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, and more. We also discuss a number of new popular and academic publications and a couple new podcast episodes we are listening to. This week also brings a number of upcoming events to look forward to and announcements, including updates to our disinfo page and a fellowship opportunity.

First, Some Good News from OSTP

This week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released guidance that will make federally funded research freely available without delay. The White House issued a press release on Thursday reading, “Today, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) updated U.S. policy guidance to make the results of taxpayer-supported research immediately available to the American public at no cost. In a memorandum to federal departments and agencies, Dr. Alondra Nelson, the head of OSTP, delivered guidance for agencies to update their public access policies as soon as possible to make publications and research funded by taxpayers publicly accessible, without an embargo or cost. All agencies will fully implement updated policies, including ending the optional 12-month embargo, no later than December 31, 2025.” This change was made in an effort to further the administration’s goal to “…broaden the potential of the American innovation ecosystem by leveling the playing field for all American innovators, which can help ensure that the U.S. remains a leader in science and technology…” by blocking the current embargo option publishers have to require a subscription to view taxpayer-funded research for a year after publication.

Monkeypox

What’s in a name?

Are monkeys spreading monkeypox to humans? What do we mean by MSMs? Is monkeypox only spreading in the LGBTQ community? Amid violence against monkeys, concerns about public health messaging, and a flurry of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, the discussion of how we name and talk about infectious diseases is once again attracting attention. Andrew Jacobs explains in The New York Times that, “In the three months since the first cases of monkeypox were reported in Europe and the United States, public health experts have been urging the World Health Organization to come up with new nomenclature that might help to clear up any confusion and reduce the shame and stigmatization associated with a disease that has been spreading largely among men who have sex with men.” He also details an open letter from scientists from several countries urging the WHO to move quickly on finding new nomenclature, spearheaded by Dr. Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatician at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. “Names matter, and so does scientific accuracy, especially for pathogens and epidemics that we are trying to control,” said Dr. de Oliveira.

The letter also condemned media coverage of the outbreak, “noting that some Western outlets had been using photos of lesion-pocked Africans to illustrate an outbreak that was almost entirely affecting white men. Many articles have also been wrongly describing the virus as “endemic” to Africa, they wrote. In fact, before the current global outbreak, human-to-human transmission in Africa was relatively uncommon, with most infections occurring in rural areas among people who had direct contact with wild animals. “In the context of the current global outbreak, continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing,” the authors wrote.”

Déjà Vu x 2

In addition to historical parallels to the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US, concerns that the US is repeating its COVID-19 mistakes are abounding. Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Biodefense Program, was recently interviewed by PBS on this topic, cautioning that “We’re seeing a lot of Groundhog Day,” she said. “The lessons we thought we’d learned with COVID haven’t made as much of a difference as we would have liked.” The article explains further that “Health secretaries declared both viruses to be public health emergencies, inviting greater coordination, pushing for more urgent action and freeing up more funding and resources at the federal, state, local and tribal levels. But despite all that, the U.S. response to the monkeypox virus (or MPXV) has been criticized in ways that are hauntingly familiar, said Dr. Saskia Popescu…”

The administration has also been broadly criticized for its strategy to vaccinate more people for monkeypox, with critics highlighting that the plan to stretch the vaccine is actually resulting in fewer vaccinations overall as doses are moved around the country. Politico reported this week that “health officials in half a dozen states told POLITICO that they are routinely able to extract only three or four doses per vial, meaning they were able to vaccinate fewer people last week than if the federal government had made no changes at all because of the drastically reduced allocations,” as opposed to the five they are supposed to be taking from each vial under the administration’s new guidance.

The same article continues to further explains the issue-“In Washington, D.C., which has more monkeypox cases per capita than anywhere in the U.S., health officials anticipated the new dosing strategy — where a smaller amount of vaccine is injected into the outer layer of the skin — would allow them to stretch the 12,000 vials they had been promised to 60,000 doses; instead, they received 2,400 vials, a fifth of the original number. And when the latest vaccine allocation came early this week, they were allotted about 4,000 vials.” With US cases sitting at nearly 17,000 as of August 22, concerns are continuing to grow that time is running out to contain this virus, a concern all too familiar by now.

You Get a Re-Org, You Get a Re-Org, Everyone Gets a Re-Org

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Calls for Re-Organization

The CDC, a 75-year-old organization long respected as the nation’s premier public health agency, is at a crossroads. Following a review initiated in April, the findings of which have yet to be released to the public, the agency announced it will go under a re-organization process. As Brenda Goodman explained last week, “CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky met with senior leadership at the agency this morning to lay out her plans for overhauling how the agency works. She plans to remake the culture to help the agency move faster when it responds to a public health crisis. She also wants to make it easier for other parts of the government to work with the CDC, and wants to simplify and streamline the website to get rid of overlapping and contradictory public health guidance.”

The New York Times quoted Walensky’s statement to the agency’s almost 11,000 employees, in which she said “To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes, from testing to data to communications.” The same article continued, explaining that the CDC “has been criticized for years as being too academic and insular. The coronavirus pandemic brought those failings into public view, with even some of the agency’s staunchest defenders criticizing its response as inept.” The Times also quoted Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health, writing ““Can she do it? I don’t know. Does it absolutely need to be done? Yes. Is it just a reorganization that is required? I don’t think so.”

Department of Homeland Security Announces New Office of Health Security

DHS announced recently that it instituted an overhaul that moved the chief medical officer and many other health-focused staff out of the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office and into the newly formed Office of Health Security. “Over the past several years, Americans have faced a series of unprecedented challenges impacting their health security, from the pandemic to natural disasters and more,” saidSecretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas. “Our Department must be prepared to adapt to an ever-expanding, dynamic, and complex public health threat landscape. The Office of Health Security will lead our efforts to meet that charge.” 

The Office of Health Security, under the direction of DHS’s Chief Medical Officer Pritesh Gandhi, is part of an effort to address disjointed health crisis response policies. The Office will be responsible to “keep the Department of Homeland Security’s workforce healthy, ensure care for thousands of desperate migrants at the border, prepare for the next pandemic,” and even direct veterinary care for the Department’s horses and dogs, according to Bloomberg Government. This comes after a GAO report and concerns that “DHS health policy was getting lost inside the weapons office’s broader mandate to help detect catastrophic threats to the US.”

COVID-19 Updates- Because It’s Definitely Still a Thing

With US roll-out of bivalent COVID-19 vaccines specifically targeting the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants likely on the horizon and cases still averaging over 100,000 per day, it’s clear as ever that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. In case you were starting to get bored with the whole thing, however, we have some new updates from around the world.

China’s Rush to “Prove” COVID-19 Didn’t Start in Its Borders

Nearly three years into the pandemic, the PRC is still working hard to spin the origin story of COVID-19. This time, the Chinese are trying to publish large sums of research that makes it seem impossible that the pandemic started in Wuhan. For example, a pre print hosted on ResearchSquare, “A comprehensive survey of bat sarbecoviruses across China for the origin tracing of SARS-CoV and SARSCoV-2,” claimed to have found zero viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 in tests done in over 17,000 bats across China. While the authors acknowledge this is a surprising result, they claimed that relatives of this virus are “extremely rare” in the country, a conclusion contested by experts in Hong Kong and Australia.

Jon Cohen wrote in Science‘s coverage of this latest pandemic origin disinfo push, “Yet Chinese researchers have published a flurry of papers supporting their government’s “anywhere-but-here” position. Multiple studies report finding no signs of SARS-CoV-2–related viruses or antibodies in bats and other wild and captive animals in China. Others offer clues that the virus hitched a ride to China on imported food or its packaging. On the flip side, Chinese researchers are not pursuing—or at least not publishing—obvious efforts to trace the sources of the mammals sold at the Huanan market, which could yield clues to the virus’ origins.”

He also discusses the idea that spillover likely occurred at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was recently substantially supported by two publications in Science, writing “Beijing was open to the idea at first. But today it points to myriad ways SARS-CoV-2 could have arrived in Wuhan from abroad, borne by contaminated frozen food or infected foreigners—perhaps at the Military World Games in Wuhan, in October 2019—or released accidentally by a U.S. military lab located more than 12,000 kilometers from Wuhan. Its goal is to avoid being blamed for the pandemic in any way, says Filippa Lentzos, a sociologist at King’s College London who studies biological threats and health security. “China just doesn’t want to look bad,” she says. “They need to maintain an image of control and competence. And that is what goes through everything they do.”

Brazilian Federal Police Call for Jair Bolsonaro to be Charged for False COVID-19 Claims

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, may face charges in regards to spreading false information about COVID-19, which has killed over 680,000 Brazilians to date, reports The Guardian. Tom Phillips explains that, “On Wednesday night a senior federal police investigator was reported to have written to the supreme court asking for Bolsonaro to be questioned and charged with the crime of incitement, when someone encourages another person to commit an offense.” The federal police were ordered to conduct an inquiry into the president’s alleged crimes last December at the end of a congressional inquiry into his handling of the pandemic.

The police report focuses on an October 2021 broadcast since removed by YouTube and Facebook, Bolsonaro claimed that face masks were responsible for many deaths during the 1918 flu pandemic. “[The president] in a direct, spontaneous and conscious manner disseminated the disinformation that victims of the Spanish flu had in fact died as a result of bacterial pneumonia caused by the use of masks, instilling in viewers’ minds a veritable disincentive to their use in the fight against Covid at a time when the use of masks was compulsory,” the police report said.” Bolsonaro has also promoted “cures” like hydroxychloroquine despite mounting evidence against its use for treating COVID-19 and claimed that studies in the UK found links between COVID-19 vaccinations and people developing HIV/AIDS “much faster than expected,” a claim British officials have summarily rejected.

UK Biobank and China’s Access to Foreign Genetic Information

UK Biobank, a long-term biobank study in the United Kingdom “investigating the respective contributions of genetic predisposition and environmental exposure (including nutrition, lifestyle, medications etc.) to the development of disease,” was recently urged to reconsider how it handles information transfers for medical research. The Guardian reports, “Rising political and security tensions between Beijing and the west have prompted calls for a review of the transfer of genetic data to China from a biomedical database containing the DNA of half a million UK citizens. The UK Biobank said it had about 300 projects under which researchers in China were accessing “detailed genetic information” or other health data on volunteers. The anonymised data is shared under an open-access policy for use in studies into diseases from cancer to depression. There is no suggestion it has been misused or participants’ privacy compromised.”

Commenting on this issue, KCL’s Professor Jonathan Adams said there are “huge potential returns from having a good, positive, open relationship” with China but that current relationships relied “far too much on things like formal agreements, which we believe will protect things in a way they would if we were working with conventional partners”. “China is different. It’s transformed into a public research culture over a very short period, and the norms we expect are not necessarily universally adopted. My concern is that what gets published in English would be the bit above water that you can see.”

This case and others like it echo last year’s warnings from the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center cautioning Americans to “Understand that all entities in the PRC, including commercial, research, and scientific, are required by law to share information with the PRC state security apparatus,” and that “Genomic technology used to design disease therapies tailored to an individual also can be used to identify genetic vulnerabilities in a population.” Similar concerns were raised over BGI Group (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and their NIFTY prenatal test. Kirsty Needham and Clare Baldwin explain that “U.S. government advisors warned in March that a vast bank of genomic data that the company, BGI Group, is amassing and analyzing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage. As science pinpoints new links between genes and human traits, access to the biggest, most diverse set of human genomes is a strategic edge. The technology could propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target the U.S. population or food supply, the advisors said.”

Ninth Anniversary of Ghouta Chemical Attack

Mohamad Katoub recently wrote in Syria Direct that, “Sunday marked the ninth anniversary of the Ghouta chemical massacre on August 21, 2013. The attack claimed the lives of at least 1,347 people in the East and West Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, and injured more than 10,626 others, more than two-thirds of whom were children and women. Every year, Syrians keep its memory alive, bringing the events and pain of that day back to the forefront.” In recognition of this anniversary, the Syrian Network for Human Rights recently released its report (“The Ninth Anniversary of the Largest Chemical Weapons Attack by the Syrian Regime against Syrian Citizens in the Two Ghoutas of Damascus”) discussing the chemical weapons attack on the Two Ghoutas, al-Assad and others’ responsibility for the attack, and current efforts to bring the regime back into the Arab League. This and other attacks are further documented on Don’t Suffocate Truth’s website, which features an interactive page on the attacks and translations of witnesses’ testimonies.

Infographic source: https://donotsuffocatetruth.com/en/infographics/17#infographic

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station

This week, Russian shelling near the Zaporizhzhia NPP sparked fires in ash pits of a coal power station nearby, disconnecting the nuclear facility from the power grid, sparking concerns about the facility. As of this morning, the Zaporizhzhia NPP is still reported to be disconnected from the country’s power grid, having previously been disconnected for the first time just one day prior. “The station’s own needs for power supply are currently provided through a repaired line from the energy system of Ukraine,” Energoatom, the National Nuclear Energy Generating Company of Ukraine, said today. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reported that the plant’s backup diesel generators were “immediately activated” avoiding “the consequences of a radiation accident.” He also stated, “The world must understand what a threat this is: If the diesel generators hadn’t turned on, if the automation and our staff of the plant had not reacted after the blackout, then we would already be forced to overcome the consequences of the radiation accident,” during his nightly address.

“Almost every day there is a new incident at or near the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. We can’t afford to lose any more time. I’m determined to personally lead an IAEA mission to the plant in the next few days to help stabilize the nuclear safety and security situation there,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said in a statement.

In response to this situation, a bipartisan group of nonproliferation experts signed a letter to President Biden urging the administration to “prioritize responding to Russia’s illegal seizure and mistreatment of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and its staff.” The letter reads in part, “We urge you to work closely with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, UN Secretary-General Guterres, and IAEA Director General Grossi to secure an IAEA visit based on the agency’s long record of impartiality and neutrality. We agree with your ambassador to the IAEA, Laura S.H. Holgate, that such a visit should “occur in a manner that fully respects Ukrainian sovereignty and legitimate Ukrainian authorities, and the IAEA must not lend any legitimacy to Russia’s actions or control of the site.” The experts who signed the letter include GMU Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and several others across government, academia, NGOs and IGOs, and the private sector.

“Her Discovery Changed the World. How Does She Think We Should Use It?”

Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR gene editing technology. But, as David Marchese explains in The New York Times Magazine, “Since 2012, when Doudna and her colleagues shared the findings of work they did on editing bacterial genes, the 58-year-old has become a leading voice in the conversation about how we might use CRISPR — uses that could, and probably will, include tweaking crops to become more drought resistant, curing genetically inheritable medical disorders and, most controversial, editing human embryos. “It’s a little scary, quite honestly,” Doudna says about the possibilities of our CRISPR future. “But it’s also quite exciting.” Marchese’s article includes the text of an interview with Dr. Doudna discussing ethical concerns about this technology and what it means for the future.

For more on security concerns surrounding CRISPR, check out GMU’s own Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley‘s award-winning paper, “From CRISPR babies to super soldiers: challenges and security threats posed by CRISPR“.

“Is Your Government Ready for Another Pandemic?”

Statista’s Anna Fleck recently covered a 2021 OECD survey that found just how greatly perceptions of government preparedness for health crises vary globally. She writes, “According to the report, public trust in government rise and fell throughout the pandemic, with a show of support for governments at the start, versus later when the death count started to rise. The authors note that the survey’s results likely correspond to the intensity of the pandemic at the time, in November 2021. They add: “It is also worth noting that – in spite of the many challenges governments faced in effectively responding to the economic and health exigencies of the pandemic – this finding suggests that people see governments as having learned from the information gained during this experience.””

“FDA’s Work to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic”

The FDA released this report last month discussing its work during the COVID-19 pandemic, covering vaccines, pharmaceutical, devices (including tests and PPE), resilient supply chains, advanced manufacturing and innovation, inspections, investigations, import, and fraud, and crosscutting research. The report includes details of the massive undertakings of the administration during this crisis while also paying attention to how it is preparing for future health emergencies.

“A “Knife Fight” with the FDA: The Trump White House’s Relentless Attacks on FDA’s Coronavirus Response”

Speaking of the FDA, the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis recently published this staff report discussing key findings of their investigation into the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report is divided into three sections-“Trump White House officials orchestrated coordinated pressure campaigns to reauthorize hydroxychloroquine and expand its use after it was shown to be ineffective and potentially dangerous,” “The Trump administration’s push to authorize convalescent plasma on the eve of the Republican National Convection,” and “The Trump White House attempted to derail FDA’s vaccine guidance ahead of the presidential election and pressed Commissioner Hahn on vaccine authorization.” Major findings include:

  1. “Senior Trump White House Adviser Peter Navarro Exerted Inappropriate Pressure on FDA to Reauthorize Hydroxychloroquine as a Coronavirus Treatment After It Was Shown to Be Ineffective and Potentially Dangerous”
  2. “Trump White House Officials Covertly Worked with Outside Groups to Attempt to Reauthorize Hydroxychloroquine and to Fund Clinical Trials to Justify Its Use”
  3. “Mr. Navarro and Dr. Hatfill Forged Close Alliances and Coordinated Secretively with Outside Allies—Including Known Conspiracy Theorists—to Amplify External Pressure on FDA to Reauthorize Hydroxychloroquine”
  4. “Mr. Navarro and Dr. Hatfill Took Steps to Conceal the White House’s Involvement in Mobilizing External Support for Hydroxychloroquine––Including Conducting Official Business with Private Email Accounts”
  5. “Mr. Navarro and Dr. Hatfill Aggressively Attacked Dr. Fauci, Dr. Hahn, and Other Public Health Officials Who Refused to Support Hydroxychloroquine—and Pushed for Them to Be Federally Investigated”
  6. “In the Days Leading Up to the Republican National Convention, President Trump Expressed “Dismay” About Perceived Delays in an EUA for Convalescent Plasma, While the White House Hastily Convened a Press Conference that Grossly Misstated the Data,” and
  7. “Trump Administration Political Appointees Blocked FDA Coronavirus Vaccine EUA Guidance Due to “Objections” Over How It Would Impact the Authorization Timeline Ahead of the Presidential Election”

“Public Health Preparedness: COIVD-19 Medical Surge Experiences and Related HHS Efforts”

The Government Accountability Office recently released this report on the Department of Health and Human Services’ support to health care coalitions designed to help manage medical surges. The report finds that: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of hospitals’ abilities to evaluate and care for an increased volume of patients exceeding normal operating capacity, known as medical surge. All eight hospitals in GAO’s review reported multiple challenges related to staff, supplies, space, or information. These are critical components for an effective medical surge response, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). All eight hospitals reported staffing challenges, such as a lack of staff to care for the increase in sick patients or staff becoming ill and unable to work, affecting hospital services. Hospitals took steps to address these challenges, such as supplementing staffing levels where possible or training staff on proper personal protective equipment use to prevent infection. Health care coalitions—groups of health care and response organizations in a defined geographic location supported by HHS funding—aided hospitals. For example, they helped coordinate patient transfers to balance hospital loads, obtain and distribute needed medical supplies, and communicate hospital needs to their states.”

The findings continued, explaining that “HHS has programs and activities underway intended to support medical surge readiness for hospitals and other health care organizations, but it is too soon to know the effectiveness of these efforts. For example, HHS implemented a new medical surge exercise for coalitions in 2021 to test readiness, and plans to establish targets to measure performance. It is also considering how to use the findings and lessons learned from its 2021 assessment of coalitions during the pandemic to improve its support of coalitions and their communities. HHS is also funding the development of a regional disaster health response system, which aims to develop effective approaches to medical surge response across multiple states. This includes improving data sharing on resource and capacity issues, and developing specialized teams that can respond to a range of hazards. HHS is considering its next steps regarding the expansion of this regional system. Further, HHS is developing regional guidelines for hospitals and other facilities related to treating patients and increasing medical surge capacity during public health emergencies as required by statute. Officials did not provide a date for when the guidelines would be made publicly available.”

“Mapping Biosafety Level-3 Laboratories by Publications”

Researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology recently published this report, explaining “Biosafety Level-3 laboratories (BSL-3) are an essential part of research infrastructure and are used to develop vaccines and therapies. The research conducted in them provides insights into host-pathogen interactions that may help prevent future pandemics. However, these facilities also potentially pose a risk to society through lab accidents or misuse. Despite their importance, there is no comprehensive list of BSL-3 facilities, or the institutions in which they are housed. By systematically assessing PubMed articles published in English from 2006-2021, this paper maps institutions that host BSL-3 labs by their locations, augmenting current knowledge of where high-containment research is conducted globally.”

“Prototype Pathogen Approach for Vaccine and Monoclonal Antibody Development: A Critical Component of the NIAID Plan for Pandemic Preparedness”

The Journal of Infectious Diseases recently published this article from Cassetti et al. discussing the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ emphasis on priority pathogens, technology platforms, and prototype pathogens in its pandemic preparedness plan. Their abstract reads: “Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 1 (SARS-CoV-1) emerged 20 years ago, presaging a series of subsequent infectious disease epidemics of international concern. The recent emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has underscored the importance of targeted preparedness research to enable rapid countermeasure development during a crisis. In December 2021 the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), building upon the successful strategies developed during the SARS-CoV-2 response and to prepare for future pandemics, published a pandemic preparedness plan that outlined a research strategy focused on priority pathogens, technology platforms, and prototype pathogens. To accelerate the discovery, development, and evaluation of medical countermeasures against new or previously unknown pathogens of pandemic potential, we present here a strategy of research directed at select prototype pathogens. In this manner, leveraging a prototype pathogen approach may serve as a powerful cornerstone in biomedical research preparedness to protect public health from newly emerging and reemerging infectious diseases.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

The Retort Episode 1: A History of Chemical and Biological Disarmament

Brett Edwards has done it again! When he’s not cranking out new episodes of the Poisons and Pestilence Podcast, he’s doing other fascinating work, including this first episode of the Retort focused on the BWC and CWC. In anticipation of BWC RevCon later this year, this episode covers the history of these two disarmament treaties. This work is done in conjunction with the Biological Security Research Centre at London Metropolitan University as well.

Public Health on Call 509 – The Threat of Polio

Following the first case of paralytic polio in New York in decades, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s “Olakunle Alonge, an associate professor of international health at Johns Hopkins, who’s worked on polio eradication efforts around the world, speaks to John Sharfstein about what’s behind the rise in cases and how the world can defeat polio–forever,” in this latest podcast episode.

2022 BSL4ZNet International Conference

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network is hosting its international conference virtually this year from September 8 through October 13. The conference will convene under the overarching theme of Forging ahead stronger: Strengthening zoonotic disease preparedness. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and best practices, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world. Session 4 on October 13 will feature a panel on “The Future of Global Biorisk Management” featuring our own Dr. Greg Koblentz alongside King’s College London’s Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Mayra Ameneiros, Dr. Rocco Casagrande of Gryphon Scientific, and Dr. Loren Matheson of Defence Research and Development Canada. Learn more and register for the conference here.

Accelerating the Development & Uptake of Rapid Diagnostics to Address Antibiotic Resistance

This upcoming workshop, convened by the National Academies’ Forum on Drug Discovery, Development, and Translation; the Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies; and the Forum on Microbial Threats will provide a venue for stakeholders to discuss the current landscape of rapid diagnostics to address antibiotic resistance, consider challenges and opportunities for spurring innovation, and discuss practical next steps for accelerating the development of new diagnostic tools. The workshop will be held October 13-14. Learn more and register here.

A Fireside Chat with Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Join the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security on Tuesday, August 30, at 4 pm ET, for a fireside chat with Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tom Inglesby, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Julie Gerberding, CEO of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and co-chair of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security, will host and moderate a discussion reflecting on the CDC’s critical role in pandemic preparedness and response, at home and abroad. As part of that, Dr. Walensky will offer details on recently announced plans for major internal reforms to strengthen CDC’s future performance. Watch and register here.

Event Recording-Monkeypox: The State of the Science

Get insights into the state of the science of monkeypox, the disease’s epidemiology, prevention options and more in this August 18 webinar recording from the American Public Health Association and the National Academy of Medicine. Available here.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Editorial Fellowships Application Now Open

The Bulletin is now accepting application for its editorial fellows through September 15. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will appoint editorial fellows this fall in two coverage areas: climate change and biosecurity. Editorial fellows will have one-year terms, during which time they will be expected to write four (4) articles or columns (i.e., about one article or column per quarter). The fellows will be paid a $750 honorarium per article or column, for a potential total of $3,000. These will be non-resident appointments, i.e. fellows can write for the Bulletin from anywhere. Fellows will not be employees of the Bulletin. These one-year fellowships are renewable, upon excellent performance. Because the Bulletin is an international publication, fellows need not live in the United States.” Learn more and apply here.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

We are currently working on creating a searchable collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation on the Pandora Report site. The page is a work in progress, and currently just lists resources we have highlighted in the past. In the meantime, here are some recent updates and works on the topic:

Polygraph.info- “Putin’s Patently Bogus Claim About the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant”

Leonid Martynyuk discusses the misleading nature of Putin’s statement that “The regular strikes on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant by the Ukrainian military create the danger of a major nuclear disaster that could lead to radiation contamination of vast territories,” in this latest work on Polygraph.info.

Foreign Policy– “Kremlin Claims Monkeypox Could Be a Secret U.S. Bioweapon”

Ivana Stradner discusses Russia’s latest claims in its disinfo-war, writing “The Kremlin has been spinning this coincidence to build an elaborate monkeypox disinformation campaign. The head of the Russian defense ministry’s radiation, chemical, and biological defense troops, Igor Kirillov, implied that monkeypox could have originated in a U.S.-funded Nigerian biolab. Russian media also reported that, according to Kirillov, “Ukraine’s biological laboratories were connected to the Pentagon’s infection system”—whatever that means. Russian media have claimed that a “hasty withdrawal” of U.S. personnel from Ukrainian labs could have led to workers contracting the disease. There is no causal evidence for any of this, but the combination of these bits and pieces on a timeline, then widely disseminated by various media, has the effect of burying the truth under a heap of disinformation.”

Pandora Report: 5.27.2022

Happy Friday! This week starts with a trip around the Korean Peninsula as we cover what some Biodefense Program students are doing in South Korea right now before discussing updates on COVID-19 in North Korea. Brief updates and sources for more information on monkeypox are also included, in addition to a number of new publications and upcoming events.

Biodefense Students Study Northeast Asian Security Issues in South Korea

Four students from George Mason’s Biodefense Program are studying international security issues in South Korea for two weeks with the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS). The program is headed up by the Schar School’s Professor Ellen Laipson, current Director of CSPS and President Emerita of the Stimson Center, and is sponsored by the UniKorea Foundation. Their time in Korea began at George Mason’s Korea campus, located on the Incheon Global Campus. They are currently in Seoul and will soon finish their trip in Busan. Among other things, they have completed a Korean War crisis simulation and attended the CSPS-Korea branch’s annual symposium, “Prospects for Peace on the Korean Peninsula in Northeast Asia’s Changing Security Landscape,” which has been featured in multiple Korean media outlets.

COVID-19 in North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK, North Korea) outbreak of “fevers” continues as cases surge towards 3 million and the official death count reaches 86. The country claims it has the situation under control and that it is currently seeing a downward trend in cases, though this is the subject of much skepticism. “In a few days after the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system was activated, the nation-wide morbidity and mortality rates have drastically decreased and the number of recovered persons increased, resulting in effectively curbing and controlling the spread of the pandemic disease and maintaining the clearly stable situation,” Korean Central News Agency said this week.

However, North Korea is apparently unable to maintain sufficient testing capacity, so their numbers actually reflect those confirmed to have a fever, rather than confirmed cases of COVID-19. The term “fevers” seems to have become both a euphemism for COVID-19 and an actual metric for determining who is sick in the absence of strong testing capacity. Furthermore, given the realities of the regime’s rule and party politics in the country, lower-level leaders are not incentivized to tell the truth about outbreaks in localities and provinces. Therefore, while state media is likely not telling the truth about the situation, the central government also likely does not have a great understanding of national case counts either.

North Korean poster praising the Party’s “quarantine battle” featured by Korean Central News Agency (Source: 조선중앙통신)

Furthermore, while it is doubtful that the country has been truthful in reporting cases over the last couple of years, this does pose an important question- Why did the DPRK announce it has an outbreak now? Kim Jong-un has even described this as the worst crisis since the country’s founding in the mid-20th century. For context, North Korea survived a horrific famine in the 1990s wherein 240,000 to 3.5 million died of starvation or hunger-related illnesses in a country of 22 million. The DPRK is currently struggling with food shortages driven by low crop yields and reduced trade with the PRC due to COVID-19 border restrictions. Kim has also formally acknowledged this crisis, but the admission that this outbreak is so dangerous is especially interesting. National lockdowns have also likely further exacerbated hunger issues in the chronically malnourished country, as North Koreans lose access to private markets where many acquire most of their food, instead of through the national distribution system. There are a myriad of answers swirling around right now about why Kim announced this now, ranging from the idea that he really did not know how bad it was (because, again, lower-level leaders are not likely to be entirely truthful in their reporting) to the potential for this announcement to give the regime more control during this crisis.

However, the rapid spread of fevers throughout the capital has not dampened the DPRK’s missile tests. It launched three ballistic missiles within hours of announcing there was an outbreak in Pyongyang. Furthermore, this week, as President Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan wrapped up, the North launched an ICBM and two other ballistic missiles. Multiple high-explosive tests have been conducted in the North in recent weeks, prompting officials to warn that nuclear and ICBM tests were likely scheduled to occur within the next several weeks. President Biden promised his counterparts that he would work to deter the North’s nuclear threat, which has been a cornerstone of newly-inaugurated South Korean President Yoon’s campaign. Biden and Yoon also publicly discussed resuming military exercises between the two countries, which were paused or scaled-down under the Trump and Moon administrations in an effort to increase engagement with the DPRK. While all of this is something the North would unsurprisingly conduct tests in response to, some did express doubt that this would happen with the formal announcement that there is a major COVID-19 outbreak in the capital. This week, the UN Security Council rejected a US-led resolution to sanction the DPRK in response to these launches, due to Russian and Chinese vetoes. The Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, gave a speech during the vote in which he argued that sanctioning the North would be inhumane given the current situation, even though countries like South Korea and the US have offered aid to the DPRK even while remaining firm on issues like the North’s nuclear program.

The North has also continued to reject other international COVID-19 aid, further signaling that this outbreak has not changed much in the DPRK’s foreign policy so far. There are no known COVID-19 vaccines or antivirals in the country either. With concerns about access to things like oxygen and other medical supplies in the country, this fact is especially concerning. State TV has advised citizens to do things like make salt gargles, drink herbal teas, take pain killers, and disinfect their homes with mugwort solutions, further indicating the regime is presently relying on these at-home “cures” even though it has been offered aid by several countries and the WHO. Kim Jong-un has personally toured several pharmacies, sporting two masks while doing so in a departure from the last two years. It has also been reported that North Koreans near the Chinese border have been observed not wearing masks, meaning masking may only be in effect in Pyongyang or there is a mask shortage. This all does not bode well as the country’s healthcare system has remained hardly functional since the 1990s and more than 42% of the population are considered malnourished.

Monkeypox Cases On the Rise

Monkeypox updates are coming in constantly so, in an effort to not provide outdated or incomplete information, this section will focus more on providing good options for more information. As of May 25, there were 219 confirmed cases globally, primarily in young men who have sex with men, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. These have been reported in 12 WHO member states where the disease is not endemic, a fact that the WHO says is abnormal, but containable.

The CDC’s Health Alert Network recently published this report on the disease in the US and other non-endemic countries that urges clinicians to be vigilant given the rise of cases not associated with travel to endemic countries. It provides good background and descriptions of clinical presentation, in addition to advice for health departments and the general public.

This situation has also required countries to assess the preparedness of their vaccine stockpiles. The US has two vaccines in its Strategic National Stockpile for smallpox that will also work against monkeypox, for example. As there is no specific vaccine for monkeypox, demand for smallpox vaccines has skyrocketed. Bavarian Nordic‘s smallpox vaccine has proven to be 85% effective against monkeypox and the company is seeing unprecedented demand for a product it normally produces for biodefense stockpiling purposes.

“Unrelenting Violence: Violence Against Health Care in Conflict”

The newest report from Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition was recently released, analyzing attacks on healthcare systems in conflict zones throughout 2021. With more than 200 WHO-confirmed attacks on health care in Ukraine, “…the world’s attention has understandably focused on Russia’s invasion and its apparent strategy of targeting hospitals and ambulances,”—but the crisis is global, the Coalition’s chair, Leonard Rubenstein, said in a Physicians for Human Rights news release. While the report does acknowledge there have been some improvements in accountability for these attacks, Rubenstein also stated, “Perhaps 2022 will be an inflection point, as images and reports of attacks on health care and their consequences in Ukraine continue to go viral, accompanied by frequent and loud demands for accountability – but it won’t be if the lassitude of the international community continues.”

Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel New Edition

West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) recently released a new edition of its Sentinel, “The Biological Threat- Part Two,” as a follow up to the previous part one. In it, Gary Ackerman, Zachary Kallenborn, and Philipp Bleek present a bioterrorism
classification schema to evaluate the pandemic’s impact on bioterrorism, concluding that “…when it comes to bioterrorism, the pandemic probably has not moved the needle much. Although COVID-19 might encourage apocalyptic cults, some radical environmentalists, some extreme right-wing groups, and some Islamist extremist groups toward biological weapons, most other terrorist groups are more likely to be discouraged. The pandemic has bolstered some terrorists’ bio-related capabilities but in at most modest ways. At the same time, lessons from the COVID-19 experience may both help reduce the consequences of a future attack and heighten perceptions of bioterrorism risk.” Drs. Audrey Kurth Cronin of American University and Jaime Yassif of NTI also provided articles for this edition.

“When All Research Is Dual Use”

Issues in Science and Technology recently published this article by Dr. Sam Weiss Evans. In it, Weiss discusses issues with how policymakers view science and scientists, writing “The problems with the myth of asocial science, and its accompanying pantheon of lone hero scientists, are widespread and well known—but not, it seems, to policymakers, who continually reinscribe it. The myth can be found throughout US research, innovation, and governance systems, all of which fail to incentivize scientists to engage with society—or, often, even with those from other fields of study who might bring a different perspective.” He argues that science should instead be understood as a social system wherein science and scientists are questioned on the security implications of their work. He also criticizes “research security” and “research integrity”, arguing that these are part of a “fortress America” understanding of the world and that “Guards, gates, and guns only help when it’s clear what the threats are and what is to be protected. In the world of emerging biotechnology, neither is clear.” He ultimately concludes that social science approaches to understanding these threats need to be at the heart of the National Security Commission for Emerging Biotechnology’s work, writing that it will “…not be easy, as it questions some of the underlying assumptions of science—and of national security—for the last century. But the world in which those foundations were laid down no longer exists.”

“Charting a New Course for Biosafety in a Changing World”

David Gillum, Rebecca Moritz, Dr. Yong-bee Lim (Biodefense Program alumni), and Dr. Kathleen Vogel also recently released a piece in Issues in Science and Technology. They explain that “… recent events—such as the discovery of smallpox vials outside of high containment labs, the transport of inactivated anthrax around the world, and safety concerns around gene drives and a future with do-it-yourself genome editing—highlight gaps in how biosafety governance currently operates.” They argue that now is the time to amend issues in biosafety governance, but also that current proposals to do so “…largely mirror historical precedents and are reactive, overly broad, and inconsistent.” Their work provides good background information on this debate and offers an intriguing perspective on how to best balance allowing science to advance while also being realistic about the risks certain work poses.

Summary Report- “The Ethics of Protecting ‘CRISPR’ Babies: An International Roundtable”

The University of Kent recently hosted a roundtable event focused on the ethical issues posed by “CRISPR babies,” which featured Biodefense Program faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben-Ouagrham Gormley. The event’s summary report was recently published and provides background on this issue, including the recommendations of Ruipeng Lei and Renzong Qiu in China to protect the world’s first three genome-edited children, in addition to panelist comments. Dr. Ben-Ouagrham Gormley was also recently named a runner-up winner of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ McElvany Award for her work, “From CRISPR babies to super soldiers: challenges and security threats posed by CRISPR.”

Launching the Competence Network CBWNet: Achievements of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Future Challenges

The CBWNet recently released this working paper discussing the CWC at 25 years and the recent launch of the CBWNet project itself. The project is “a new, joint endeavour aimed at strengthening the norms against chemical and biological weapons. The four-year project is carried out jointly 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 von Weizsäcker-Centre for Science and Peace Research (ZNF) at the University of Hamburg.” This paper identifies key gaps in international norms against chemical weapons use and how these might be bridged.

Discussions with DTRA Podcast, “Episode 1: DTRA Cleans Up Vozrozhdeniya Island’s 12 Tons of Anthrax”

This episode covers the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program’s Biological Threat Reduction Program’s heavy involvement in Vozrezhdeniye Island, Uzbekistan, commonly referred to as Voz Island, where the CTR Program eliminated more than 12 tons of weaponized anthrax that was abandoned on site. It includes the personal stories and experiences of DTRA people who were on the ground as part of the clean-up crew.

Global Public Policy Institute Podcast- “Nowhere to Hide”

This new episode from GPPI, “Nowhere to Hide”, discusses use of chemical weapons in Syria using first-person perspectives to do so. GPPI writes:

The systematic use of chemical weapons in Syria is one of the most heinous crimes in modern history. These toxic attacks have claimed the lives of almost two thousand people and left thousands more profoundly scarred. Not only did the Syrian regime poison its own people – it also defied the norms that underpin our international community. Assad’s flagrant crimes in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere have raised weighty questions about the future of war. And they have left Syrians with a momentous mission for justice. Nowhere to Hide tells the stories of those who came closest to these events.

Investigating High-Consequence Biological Events of Unknown Origin

The Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative are offering an event exploring the possibility of establishing a new “Joint Assessment Mechanism” — a concept that NTI has been developing in consultation with international experts — to strengthen UN-system capabilities to investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin. The event will take place on Tuesday, 7 June 2022 from 13:00 to 14:30 CEST (Central European Summer Time) in person and online. The event will feature NTI’s Dr. Jaime Yassif and Angela Kane and UNIDIR’s James Revill. RSVP here.

Stakeholder Engagement Meeting on USG Policies for the Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern

NIH will hold a stakeholder engagement meeting on the U.S. Government policies for the oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). The meeting will be held in person at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ and it will be webcast. It is scheduled for June 29, 2022, tentatively 12:00 PM to 6:15 PM ET (9:00 AM to 3:15 PM MT). Additional information will be available soon. Please monitor this site for updates.

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:

Dr. Gregory Koblentz on The Danger of Disinformation

Dr. Koblentz recently gave this talk, “The Danger of Disinformation,” with the Nuclear Threat Initiative discussing Russia’s false claims about Ukrainian biological research facilities.

GMU’s Access to Excellence Podcast- “EP 39: Russia’s War in Ukraine is Tied to Corruption, Organized Crime”

Dr. Louise Shelley, a University Professor and director of Mason’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center explains to George Mason President Gregory Washington the connections between the war in Ukraine and Russian corruption and organized crime, and how criminals and terrorists take advantage in diverse ways of the globalized world in which we live. Shelley’s center exposes that criminality and recently helped take 55 million counterfeit and sub-standard medical masks out of circulation worldwide with the takedown of more than 50,000 online marketplaces and social media posts.

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.

Pandora Report: 7.20.2018

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
This week Schar Biodefense hosted a three-day workshop on all things health security, from anthrax to Zika. Highlights from the first two days include a rousing discussion by Dr. Robert House surrounding medical countermeasures and the potential for nefarious actors to highjack the immune system, Sandy Weiner delving into the history of the 1976 influenza pandemic, GMU professor and virologist Dr. Andrew Kilianski breaking down some hard realities of biosurveillance, and Edward You of the FBI discussing the importance of working with the DIY biohacker community and protecting the bioeconomy. While the workshop continues through today, make sure to check back next week for more coverage.

 Vaccine Causing Polio in Africa? Context From An Expert
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Christopher K. Brown sat down with Lucien Crowder of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to discuss vaccine derived polio and the implications of these outbreaks. Brown discussed the vaccine production process, how they can cause an “infection light”, and the current outbreak in the DRC. “In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a vaccine-derived type 2 poliovirus is responsible for the current outbreak, even though it is no longer a component of the live, attenuated oral vaccine that most countries use (when, that is, an oral, attenuated vaccine is used instead of a fully inactivated injectable formulation that is safer but potentially less effective). Despite a World Health Organization–led switch from the three-type, or trivalent, vaccine to a bivalent preparation, the vaccine-derived type 2 virus continued to spread from person to person undetected, slowly mutating to regain the neurovirulence that can cause paralysis in those who are infected. Now, to stop the current outbreak, health officials are deploying a monovalent vaccine formulated specifically for type 2 poliovirus. The key is to reach susceptible individuals—namely, those who did not receive the trivalent option previously—with the vaccine before the virulent strain of the virus does. If enough people are vaccinated, the mutated, vaccine-associated strain will not continue to infect new people and the outbreak will subside.” Brown took care to discuss how these incidents are high-jacked by the anti-vaccination movement, but that “the argument that vaccines cause injury often focuses on the myth that certain chemicals in vaccines—including preservatives, like Thiomersal, that are no longer used in vaccine formulations—cause autism. The polio outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a case in which a strain of virus that was rendered safe for vaccinating most people has regained some of its disease-causing abilities through genetic mutation. That’s sort of similar to why bugs that are more common problems in developed countries, like staphylococcus and gonorrhea, stop responding to antibiotics: They acquire genetic mutations that make them resistant to certain drugs. What is most important here is to consider the level of risk associated with vaccine-linked outbreaks, or cases of paralysis, compared to the effects of polio in an unvaccinated population. While the attenuated poliovirus in the vaccine itself may lead to no more than four or five cases of paralysis among every million individuals vaccinated, there would likely be thousands of cases of serious disease among a million exposed, unvaccinated people.”

Why Aren’t We More Worried About The Next Epidemic?
In the past couple of months, we’ve seen outbreaks of Ebola, MERS, Zika, Nipah virus, Rift Valley fever, and Lassa fever – so why aren’t we more worried about the next epidemic? Globalization makes the movement of people and goods easier and faster – consider that 107 countries received frozen vegetables now being recalled for Listeria. The good news is that information technology allows us to know about these outbreaks and have the ability to notify necessary agencies and resources at a rapid pace. “Several major factors are to blame for why the world is seeing more of these increasingly dangerous pathogens. The combination of massive widespread urbanization, explosive population growth, increased global travel, changing ecological factors, steady climate change and the exploitation of environments is driving an era of converging risk for outbreaks, experts say.” Dr. Thomas Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted that ‘We don’t know when the next Ebola outbreak will come but we do know it will come again, and again, and again’.” Outbreaks like SARS and Ebola have shown the devastating impact outbreaks have on not only the healthcare system, but also the economy. Unfortunately, emergency preparedness and healthcare response is a tough problem to fix. The CDC director of the Center for Global Health, Rebecca Martin, stated that “Gaps in public health emergency response capabilities remain a serious vulnerability for the entire world,” she added. “While we don’t know when or where the next pandemic will occur, we know one is coming”. We know the next pandemic is coming, the unknowns are from where, when, and what it will look like. This makes response, including medical countermeasures, that much more difficult. R&D is a critical component to this, but as Dr. Inglesby noted, “The problem with public health in particular and with R&D is what we’re ultimately trying to do is prevent bad things from happening. When you succeed, it’s relatively invisible ― so the public doesn’t get to see why investment is so important.” Inglesby also recently highlighted the six ways countries can prepare for the next pandemic. From enhancing capabilities to develop new vaccines/medical countermeasures, to investing in more robust public health systems, there are several ways we can facilitate stronger national capacity to respond to pandemics.

Crucial Steps Forward: the National Academies of Science’s 2018 Study, “Enhancing Global Health Security through International Biosecurity and Health Engagement Programs”
GMU biodefense MS student Alexandra Williams recently attended the NASEM meeting regarding global health security through international biosecurity and health engagement programs. Within her recap, Williams discusses the background of CBEP (Cooperative Biological Engagement Program) and CTR (the DoD’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program), noting their efforts to strengthen health security within the U.S. and abroad. “As challenges continue to arise in timely and accurately detecting and responding to disease outbreaks—as we saw in 2014 with Ebola in West Africa, and in 2016 with Zika—U.S. health and security agencies are working to better meet these challenges, and examine how they need to evolve to meet unforeseen hurdles that lay ahead. This NASEM study is timely and critical because it addresses and examines these issues head-on, and will serve as the launch point for how the U.S. can rethink, reshape, and improve its already critical and successful work in biosecurity and global health security.”

Book Review – Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare
Glenn Cross, GMU biodefense PhD alum, has taken great care to investigate and detail the history of Rhodesia’s chemical and biological warfare program against insurgents from 1975 to 1980. If you’re on the fence about adding a new book to your reading list, check out Ryan Shaffer’s latest review. “Organized topically, the book’s preface offers a brief overview of Rhodesia’s colonial history and demographics, discussing the ethnic and racial divisions arising from a white minority’s control of the government over a disenfranchised and mostly rural black African population. Cross describes the Rhodesian War with emphasis on “the regime’s inability to defeat decisively a growing guerrilla insurgency through conventional arms alone.” (39) He explains the conflict’s evolution in the context of post-war British decolonization and the manner in which the Unilateral Declaration of Independence was designed to maintain white minority rule, as well as the ensuing international sanctions that isolated Rhodesia. By the late 1960s, government opponents shifted strategy, believing the only way to change the country was to forcibility seize control. Meanwhile, the CIO had penetrated the opponents’ ranks, gathering intelligence and setting up the Selous Scouts to work against the guerrillas.” Shaffer notes that “the book is a well-researched study that sheds light on the reasons a government broke international norms to use CBW, a tactic more likely to target local non-state actors than foreign militaries.”

 Antibiotic Prescribing Failures in Urgent Care Centers
Disrupting antibiotic resistance is challenging due to not only the vast array of sectors that play a role, but also the cultural components. Prescribing habits are one of those culturally-engrained practices that can be difficult to alter. A new study has found that antibiotic stewardship is desperately needed in urgent care facilities. “Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of Utah, and the Pew Charitable Trusts report that 45.7% of patients who visited urgent care centers in 2014 for respiratory illnesses that don’t require antibiotics end up with prescriptions for those conditions, followed by 24.6% of patients treated in emergency departments (EDs), 17% of patients who went to medical offices, and 14.4% of patients who visited retail clinics. The findings are based on analyses of 2014 claims data from patients with employer-sponsored health insurance. Previous estimates of outpatient antibiotic prescribing by some of the same researchers had pegged the amount of unnecessary prescribing at 30%, a number that some experts believe is conservative. Study coauthor David Hyun, MD, a senior officer with Pew’s antibiotic resistance project, said the findings suggest that could very well be the case.” The sad reality is that these numbers are likely to be higher across the U.S. as inappropriate prescribing practices are a systemic issue. This finding is one piece of the puzzle, which underscores the progress that needs to be made. Fortunately, countries are working to reduce antimicrobial resistance and while it’s slow, some movement forward is better than none at all.

Rift Valley Outbreak in Uganda
Uganda has reported an outbreak of Rift Valley fever across two districts. Rwanda is also reporting cases in animals and potential cases in humans. “The WHO said the affected districts are in the ‘cattle corridor’ that stretches from the southwest to the northeast regions of the country. ‘The outbreak in Uganda is occurring at a time when Kenya is having a large RVF outbreak and Rwanda is experiencing an epizootic, with suspected human cases,’ the WHO said. In Kenya, where an outbreak has been under way since May, four more Rift Valley fever cases have been reported, raising the outbreak total as of Jul 4 to 94, 20 of them confirmed. Ten deaths have been reported. Illnesses have been reported in three counties: Wajir, Marsabit, and Siaya. The country’s agriculture ministry has reported several outbreaks in animals over the past few months, especially in areas that had experienced flooding after heavy rainfall.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Strange and Curious Case of the Deadly Superbug Yeast- Maryn McKenna discusses the latest resistant bug we’re worrying about – “It’s a yeast, a new variety of an organism so common that it’s used as one of the basic tools of lab science, transformed into an infection so disturbing that one lead researcher called it “more infectious than Ebola” at an international conference last week. The name of the yeast is Candida auris. It’s been on the radar of epidemiologists only since 2009, but it’s grown into a potent microbial threat, found in 27 countries thus far.”

Pandora Report 2.23.2018

Happy Friday fellow biodefense friends! Curious about human migrant history? Ancient DNA is giving us some insight into our ancestors movements and habits. FluMist also just got the green light for use next flu season.

 Crossing the Rubicon: Horsepox Synthesis
Julius Caesar is said to have stated “alea iacta est” (the die is cast) as he led his army across the Rubicon river, triggering a point of no return in Roman history. In many ways, the horsepox synthesis is considered a new Rubicon for synthetic biology and the life sciences. While the lead researcher of the project and the private company backing it cite desires to advance progress in the pursuit of a new smallpox vaccine and identifying gaps (“Our hope is that this work will promote new and informed public health discussions relating to synthetic biology, stimulate new evaluation of [horsepox]-based vaccines, and advance the capacity to rapidly produce next-generation vaccines and poxvirus-based therapeutics.“), many are asking if they put profits ahead of public safety. The research team claimed they chose to synthesize the virus because they could obtain it no other way, but a recent article by NPR is challenging this. “There was another possibility, NPR has learned. Evans could have done research on a specimen of horsepox collected from the wild, but he didn’t pursue that alternative. He says using the natural virus might have prevented the pharmaceutical company he is working with from commercializing horsepox as a new vaccine for smallpox. But the head of the company told NPR that he had not been aware that this stored sample of horsepox was potentially available — and would not have wanted to synthesize the virus from scratch if he had known.” So now that we’ve ventured across the river, it seems that we may be learning more about dual-use research in general. Gregory Lewis notes that “Beyond the immediate issue of whether the horsepox work should have been performed (or published), the horsepox synthesis story highlights a more general challenge facing dual-use research in biotechnology: the unilateralist’s curse.” Lewis describes the unilateralist’s curse – “imagine that 100 scientists are individually deciding whether it would be a good idea to synthesize horsepox. All of them act impartially and in good faith: They would only conduct this work if they really thought it was on balance good for humankind. Each of them independently weighs up the risks and benefits of synthesizing horsepox, decides whether it is wise to do so, and acts accordingly. The situation arises from the fact that, if synthesis of horsepox is not to occur, all 100 scientists must independently decide not to pursue it; while if any of the scientists judges the benefits to outweigh the risks, he or she acts unilaterally to synthesize horsepox. Thus there is an ‘action bias’: Horsepox synthesis is more likely to occur when scientists act independently than when they agree to a decision as a group.” Has the quest for the “first strike” in scientific discovery outweighed the risks of dual-use research? The horsepox synthesis has cast a bright light upon the challenges of DURC oversight and the gaps we are struggling to even acknowledge. 

Examining Challenges & Possible Strategies to Strengthen U.S. Health Security
The National Academies of Science have released the latest proceedings of a workshop regarding the progress that has been made in the last 15 years towards improving health security, but also the gaps that exist. “On March 8–9, 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies hosted a two-day public workshop to acknowledge these persistent issues; to evaluate past, and perhaps inadequate, approaches to addressing them; and to discuss intentional and innovative new solutions. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.” The report includes proposed priorities and challenges, underlying issues in health security, and potential strategies for strengthening American health security. Such strategies include developing a shared agenda, promoting a culture of learning and sharing, building the evidence base for policy and operations, etc. “Levy called for a paradigm shift toward conceptualizing health care, public health, the business community, and other sectors as parts of a whole that need to be integrated to provide a better environment for the community at large and better care for the community on a day-to-day basis.” Optimizing the exchange of information was also discussed, as was ensuring the interoperability of data across multiple systems. Participants also examined the financial components of health security and making the business case for investment.

 Biohacker’s Remorse
Last year saw contaminated CRISPR DIY kits hit Europe, but it did little to calm the biohacking stunts of Odin CEO Josiah Zayner. In a recent article, Zayner pointed to the moment another biotech CEO dropped trouser and injected himself with an untested herpes treatment mid-conference, as a wakeup call. “’Honestly, I kind of blame myself,’ Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October had been getting to him. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,’ he said.” Zayner says his past actions were efforts to provoke people in the industry who are involved in regulation and ethics in regards to roadblocks for CRISPR and DIY kits, noting that it’s a moral and ethical dilemma. Unfortunately, his sentiments aren’t doing much for those who feel his actions were attention-seeking stunts and he has yet to prove his concern for the DIY CRISPR risks. In case anyone was wondering if Zayner is still up to his old tricks, he also provided his latest video (Gut Hack) in which he attempts to give himself a fecal transplant. While this sounds gross (and it is), what’s more concerning is that an unlicensed and untrained individual is attempting to perform a very specific task that requires a stringent infection control guidelines and procedures. For those of us who have spent years working to perfect policies and practices so this medical procedure can be used to treat patients suffering from Clostridium difficile, this is not something to be taken lightly and isn’t exactly a good indicator that Zayner has learned from his mishaps. 

When Poor Infection Control Results In A Lawsuit
Who is responsible when hospitals decide to neglect infection prevention and control? A critical component to patient safety during medical care, infection control failures can result in the spread of infection – like the transmission of Ebola to healthcare workers. A recent court decision may be setting precedent for infection control responsibility during outbreaks. A Seoul court recently ordered the South Korean government to pay compensation to a patient who acquired MERS-CoV after the government failed to implement infection control. The patient “became infected while being admitted at a hospital in Daejeon where patient 16 was staying. Patient 16 moved there not knowing that had been infected by a different person, identified as patient 1 who infected 28 others, at Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital in Gyeonggi Province. Patient 1, who had been admitted to St. Mary’s more than two weeks after returning from a trip to Bahrain, a Middle Eastern country, May 4, reported suspected symptoms of MERS with health authorities the morning of May 18. However, the Korea Centers for Disease and Prevention (KCDC) dismissed it, saying the country had no reports of a MERS outbreak.” The court notes that if quarantine would have been implemented appropriately, it could have stopped the spread.

Budgeting for Medical Countermeasures
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s latest report highlights not only the growing concern for infectious disease threats, but also the role of medical countermeasures. Pointing to Project Bioshield and the procurement of 27 medical countermeasures, the white paper “will summarize the progress to date in procuring medical countermeasures and prior congressional funding mechanisms for Project BioShield. It will also discuss ways to optimize funding for medical countermeasures so that the existing public-private partnership can continue to thrive: namely, by restoring the program’s original multi-year funding structure.”

Can Nanoparticles Help Us Battle Antimicrobial Resistance?
As news emerges of an extensively drug-resistant (XDR) typhoid strain in Pakistan, it’s hard to imagine winning the battle of the resistant bug. Can nanoparticles tackle AMR? A research team led by Andrea O’Connor at the University of Melbourne is taking on antimicrobial resistance through nanoparticles and collaboration with a nearby hospital. “Together, the team found that selenium (a mineral that humans require in their diets to boost immunity and aid metabolism) in the form of nanoparticles can stop the growth of bacteria such as ‘Golden Staph’ (Staphylococcus aureus). Their findings are published in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science. They think the nanoparticles do this by disrupting the membrane around the bacteria. ‘One of the ways that these nanoparticles can attack bacteria is by disrupting that membrane so they make the bacteria leaky, and then things can pass in and out of the bacteria in a way they normally wouldn’t’.” The team hopes that selenium nanoparticles have potential applications for when antibiotic efficiency dwindles, especially in terms of chronic wounds. Their nanoparticles have been tested against nine different kinds of bacteria and have found success against all of them.

 Tales From A Virus Hunter
With CDC and global health security funding in a dire situation, the days of virus hunters trekking through jungles and providing boots-on-the-ground support for outbreaks may be in jeopardy. Dr C.J. Peters is one of the old school virus hunters who tackled Rift Valley Fever and Bolivian hemorrhagic fever in their early days. “Peters was a virus hunter. That often meant spending time in the field, mostly in Latin America but also in Africa, where the work was interesting and the bosses far away. ‘If you’re in the shadow of the flagpole from headquarters, you’re in trouble,’ he explained. ‘Because there will be somebody poking into everything you’re doing.’ Virus hunting today is not what it used to be. There is still adventure to be had, with bold scientists seeking to uncover the mysteries of the unseen world and ultimately benefit human health. But things have also changed.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Flu Vaccine Act– Last week several US senators released their proposal to invest $1 billion in research for a universal flu vaccine over the next five years. “From a total investment of $1 billion, the proposed law would direct $200 million each year over fiscal years 2019 through 2023 to universal flu vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to a press release from Markey’s office. For comparison, he said the NIH’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) spent about $64 million in fiscal year 2017 on universal flu vaccine research.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 2.9.2018

Happy Friday fellow biodefense enthusiasts! The Winter Olympics are already starting off with a bang as Korean health officials have confirmed 128 cases of norovirus among security personnel, police officers, and Olympic workers.

WHO Releases List of Blueprint Priority Diseases
The WHO has just released their annual review of the Blueprint list of priority diseases, which includes a special tool for “determining which diseases and pathogens to prioritize for research and development in public health emergency contexts”. While the list includes diseases like Ebola, MERS and SARS, Nipah, and Zika, it is the inclusion of Disease X that highlights the unknowns of infectious diseases in the future.  “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown ‘Disease X’ as far as possible.”

BioWatch Documents Left Behind on Flight
Biowatch officials are doing a bit of a damage control at the moment as multiple copies of an official DHS document regarding performances during a bioterrorism simulation were left behind on an airplane prior to the Super Bowl. The errant document offered a critique of how officials performed during a simulated release of the infectious disease anthrax in Minneapolis on the day of the Super Bowl. Other sensitive material was also found, CNN said, without further description.” Ironically, it was a CNN employee who discovered the forgotten papers in the seat-back pocket of a commercial plane. “The reports were accompanied by the travel itinerary and boarding pass of the government scientist in charge of BioWatch, the DHS program that conducted the anthrax drills in preparation for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. The reports were based on exercises designed to evaluate the ability of public health, law enforcement and emergency management officials to engage in a coordinated response were a biological attack to be carried out in Minneapolis on Super Bowl Sunday.” CNN waited to publish the incident until after Sunday’s game, but the papers revealed significant areas for response improvement during a bioterrorism incident. While not surprising, the identification of such gaps is critical for improvement however, it is the concerning nature of which they were left behind. Vulnerabilities are always present, but that doesn’t mean we want them being aired in the open for nefarious actors to utilize.

 GMU Biodefense PhD Student Selected As ELBI Fellow 
The Biodefense Graduate Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University is proud to announce that PhD student Yong-Bee Lim has been selected for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship (ELBI) program within the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Selected from a group of over 120 international applicants, the 2018 ELBI class includes professionals and scholars with a passion for health security and biosecurity. This year-long fellowship will deepen the biosecurity expertise and broaden the network of those passionate about furthering the field. Yong-Bee was also the recipient of an internship with the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the SB7.0 Fellowship, which supported his attendance of an international synthetic biology conference in Singapore. His selection also marks the third consecutive year that the Schar School’s Biodefense program has had graduate students named ELBI fellows. Congrats Yong-Bee!

Smallpox Signalling
It’s been a couple of weeks since PLOS One published the horsepox synthesis paper and the truth is that many are still in awe that not only such work was done, but that it was published. Where were broader discussions regarding the merits of this research? Conversations about need to publish it? Moreover, what about the importance of oversight in the private biotech arena and not just those with federal funding? One thing is for certain though, this is a critical moment for life sciences and DURC oversight. “A vaccine against smallpox already exists. The research was carried out unilaterally, without a broader discussion of the merits beforehand. There are apparently few oversight mechanisms when experiments are done with private funding. The restrictions that now cover dual-use research funded by U.S. government — which include an independent review process, and a weighing of the risks and benefits, as well as the ethics — should be expanded to private-sector research.”

Topics of Interest at the DHS Meeting on Sequences of Interest
Synthetic biology has led to the creation of new products, markets, companies, and industries. At the same time, this technology poses potential risks to biosafety and biosecurity, as recently demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox virus, a cousin of variola, the virus that causes smallpox.  On January 29-30, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate sponsored a workshop to discuss the evolving role of databases that contain genetic sequences of pathogens and toxins that pose safety or security concerns, termed “sequences of interest.” The workshop brought together stakeholders from government, industry, and academia to discuss the need for such databases, review current databases and those under development, explore potential applications and users of these types of databases, and consider the potential risks that they pose due to malicious or inadvertent misuse. The workshop provided a valuable opportunity to explore the scientific and technical aspects of constructing such databases, maintenance and sustainability challenges, and the trade-offs involving functionality, accessibility, affordability, confidentiality, and security. While the workshop did not produce a consensus on the best path forward, it played an important role in educating the participants on the most critical issues and facilitating a dialogue among a diverse range of stakeholders on this important topic.  The workshop also came at a propitious time as stakeholders grapple with the changing landscape of the biotech industry and advances in DNA synthesis technology.  For instance, the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, a group of the leading DNA synthesis companies that have adopted customer and sequence screening protocols to prevent the misuse of their products, has expanded in size and geographic scope and recently updated its biosecurity protocols. The U.S. government is also reviewing the customer and sequence screening guidance it issued in 2010 and is considering whether, and how, to update it.  Should a decision be made to proceed, stakeholder engagement would be a significant part of the review, just as it was a significant part of the guidance’s original development.

The US Can’t Afford to Reduce Public Health Funding
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is evaluating the decision to reduce funding for global epidemic prevention activities and just how dangerous that would be for the United States. “Recent reporting suggests that the Trump administration is preparing to downsize the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) global epidemic prevention activities in 39 of 49 countries starting in 2019 when funding first authorized by Congress in 2014 expires. Such a move is potentially dangerous and could place the U.S. at significant risk.” Gerstein points to the notion of shared responsibility in global health security and how important efforts like the GHSA are for global public health. He also notes that the last decade alone has revealed just how undeniable public health is as a national security issue. “Without renewed funding, the long-term outlook could include weakened global disease surveillance and response systems, less capable partner nations and an increased likelihood of global disease outbreaks that would undoubtedly threaten the U.S.” Wanting more information regarding the implications of CDC cutting back on their global health security funding? Check out this article regarding the funding cliff the CDC is about to fall off.

Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia
The latest book from Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger delves into the biodefense world of Putin’s Russia. “In March 2012, at a meeting convened by the recently reelected Russian president Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Serdyukov informed Mr. Putin that a plan was being prepared for ‘the development of weapons based on new physical principles: radiation, geophysical wave, genetic, psychophysical, etc.’ Subsequently, in response to concerns expressed both in Russia and abroad, the Russian government deleted the statement from the public transcript of the meeting. But the question remains: Is Russia developing an offensive biological warfare program?”

Global Monitoring of Disease Outbreak Preparedness
The Harvard Global Health Institute has released their new report that is “a step towards developing a shared framework and monitoring mechanism” for outbreak response and preparedness. “This report is primarily intended for the community of policymakers and researchers concerned about the rising risks of domestic, regional, and global infectious disease epidemics, and the collective failure to take the coordinated actions required to reduce such risks. These risks include the expected health, economic, and societal costs that are borne by countries, regions, and even all nations in the case of pandemics (which are worldwide epidemics). These risks also include the consequences of increasing antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and its spread within regions and globally.” The report focuses on strengthening public health capacity as a foundation, improving S&T, reinforcing risk analysis and incentives for action, strengthening global mechanisms, and revised shared monitoring framework and next steps.

 The Fearsome Future of Flu
This year has been rough for seasonal flu and while it has been a cold dose of reality in terms of hospital response, are we really learning our lesson or just running from fire to fire? 2018 marks the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic and with a larger, more connected population, have we made ourselves safer? The next flu virus with pandemic potential will either enhance our response capabilities or exploit our most damning weaknesses. “And influenza viruses excel at the element of surprise. Few would have guessed Mexico as the origin of that 2009 H1N1 pandemic, for example, notes Fukuda. That outbreak was recognized in San Diego—never considered a hotspot—when a little girl happened to seek treatment at a clinic participating in a study focused on diagnosis, Adalja explains. That’s why he believes it is important to build up the diagnostic capacity for frontline clinicians, and not be satisfied with non-specific diagnoses—failing to pin down the specific microbial cause.” Unfortunately, we are still practicing the methods of frenzied response, delayed information sharing, and dangerous hysteria that can spread even faster through social media. These concerns highlight yet another reason why we need a universal flu vaccine.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Event: Healthcare Disaster Resilience
Don’t miss this event at the National Press Club Holeman Lounge on Thursday, February 22nd from 8:30-10am EST. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security will release new policy recommendations for building a more effective disaster health system in the United States. Speakers include Dr. Luciana Borio from the White House National Security Council staff, Sally Phillips of HHS, Linda Langston from the National Association of Counties, as well as Drs.Tom Inglesby, Eric Toner, Monica Schoch-Spana from the Center for Health Security.

 Genetic Sequencing and the Dangers of DIY Genome Editing
Nebula Genomics will sequence your genome for just under $1,000 and you can even share it using a blockchain.  “Nebula is the brainchild of geneticist George Church, PhD student Dennis Grishin, and graduate Kamal Obbad, all from Harvard. Mirza Cifric, CEO of Veritas Genetics, which offers a genome-sequencing service for $999, is a founding advisor. When you pay to take a DNA test—through 23andMe, Helix, or Ancestry.com, for example—the company that does the testing owns your genetic data. Nebula wants to sequence people’s entire genomes and let them own it, allowing them to earn digital money by sharing it.” While professionals may be providing your genomic data through these companies, many are looking to actually learn to experiment with genes themselves. DIY gene therapy is becoming increasingly accessible, which has many worried and the FDA issuing a warning to the public. The FDA, on “November 21 cautioned against do-it-yourself (DIY) gene therapies. But even as the agency’s statement also warned that selling gene editing kits aimed at homemade therapeutics is illegal, CRISPR–Cas9 kits are available to buy online, and the number of providers is growing, raising concerns that DIY gene therapy enthusiasts could be putting themselves and others at risk.”

Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool
B-PLAT is a new tool from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists Rachel Bartholomew and Kristin Omberg that aims to help coordinate national biodefense preparedness. It “captures and presents a slew of information about U.S. efforts to protect its citizens and others around the world from threats as diverse as the flu, diseases like Ebola, threats from terrorists, potential risks to water and food supplies, and myriad other concerns. The tool is freely available. In 2017, PNNL chartered an internally funded working group, the Policy Wranglers, to capture relevant biodefense policy directives, public laws, and corresponding sections of the U.S. Code, in a format conducive to visualization. The resulting tool can be utilized to better understand the current state of the U.S. biodefense enterprise.” A presentation on B-LAT will also be made at ASM’s Biothreats next week as part of a town hall on Tuesday.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • US Battles IV Bag Shortage During Record-Setting Severe Flu Season – GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at the impacts of this IV bag shortage during the severe flu season. “Even prior to Hurricane Maria, the United States was already battling challenges with meeting the demand for IV fluids; however, the storm crippled Puerto Rico-based manufacturing sites for materials. In a news release on January 16, the FDA reported that they were taking additional steps to combat the shortages, such as ‘asking companies to submit data to extend expiration dates for these products.’ They noted that, ‘if expiration dates can be safety extended [for these products], it would allow some near-expiry product that remains at the hospital level to be used’.”
  • DARPA Program to Track Genetic Markers for Past WMD Material Exposure – “The program is being called Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO), and its endgame is the creation of a field-deployable system that could analyze someone’s epigenome and identify markers of whether or not–in that person’s entire lifetime–been exposed to WMD-associated materials. DARPA officials are billing it as worlds quicker than sending to a lab to test for biological or chemical agents in clothing or hair.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport