This week we start by sharing some fun updates from the Biodefense Graduate Program and discussing the current situation with influenza, RSV, and COVID-19 in the United States. We also discuss new publications, including ones that discuss hypothetical BW use in Ukraine, highly pathogenic avian influenza in the US, and a new episode of the Poisons and Pestilence podcast focused on the M device. This issue concludes with details on a number of upcoming and recorded events (including a virtual open house for the Biodefense PhD Program!) and announcements, including open applications for the Biotechnology Innovation & International Security Fellowship at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Happy Friday and, as always, please wash your hands.
George Mason Biodefense MS Students Tour BSL-3 Facility on Science and Technology Campus
Last month, students in the Biodefense Graduate Program made the trek from Arlington to Manassas, VA to tour George Mason’s Biomedical Research Laboratory (BRL) on our Science and Technology Campus. Check out the Schar School’s article about their tour of the 52,000-square-foot, $50 million, NIAID-funded facility here. If you would like to have this and similar opportunities in the future, check out our upcoming PhD virtual open house coming up this Wednesday at 7 pm EST.
If the Time Change Wasn’t Bad Enough…We Might Have a Triple Threat On Our Hands
As the days get shorter and colder, the United States is also experiencing upticks in influenza, RSV, and (of course) COVID-19. Children’s hospitals are already struggling with the burden this is causing and there are further concerns that hospitals across the country will become overwhelmed as we head into winter. In response, some health departments have ramped up drive-thru testing for COVID-19 while also offering drive-thru RSV and flu testing at those same sites. Some suspect this convergence and uncharacteristic spikes in respiratory illnesses may be the result of an immunity gap created by lack of exposure to other illnesses during harsher COVID-19-related restrictions.
CDC reported this week the “cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 44 during every previous season since 2010-2011.” The agency also estimates that in this flu season so far, there have been at least 2.8 million cases, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 1,300 deaths associated with influenza. This year was also marked by an early increase in seasonal flu activity in the US, following earlier concerns that a rough flu season in the southern hemisphere provided warning of the same coming for the north. The US notably had historically low interseasonal influenza cases in 2020 when people were much more cautious and consistently took actions such as social distancing, masking, increased hand washing, etc.
This year has also brought an increase in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections, with CDC reporting its surveillance “has shown an increase in RSV detections and RSV-associated emergency department visits and hospitalizations in multiple U.S. regions, with some regions nearing seasonal peak levels. Clinicians and public health professionals should be aware of increases in respiratory viruses, including RSV.” The US saw a much higher than normal rate of RSV infections over the summer that then surged throughout September and October. RSV causes mild, cold-like symptoms that most people typically recover from in one or two weeks. However, RSV can be serious in some cases, with infants and older adults at particular risk. In the US, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under the age of one. Annually, the US averages 60,000 pediatric RSV hospitalizations, but this is likely to be exceeded this year.
While the updated, bivalent COVID-19 vaccines have proven more effective against BA.4/5 subvariants than original offerings, new concerns loom as the so-called “Scrabble variants” spread. While the BA.5 subvariant still accounts for about 40% of US cases, others like BQ.1, BQ.11, BA.4.6, and BF.7 are rising along with XBB and B.1.1.529. If this collection of subvariants is confusing to you, you’re not alone, as Dr. Peter Hotez acknowledged in initially describing them as “Scrabble variants”.
There is debate about how much the general public needs to understand about all these different subvariants. Some argue that the granular details differentiating between these is unhelpful and communication should instead focus on risk. However, others like Dr. Hotez argue it is important that people understand the differences. He points to the updated vaccines having been formulated for the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, the latter of which BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are descendants. This likely means the updated vaccines do offer protection against BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, making it important to communicate these facts to the general public. Others also argue that easier names should be offered to the public so that subvariants do not blend together and cause people to underestimate new emerging strains.
While these new subvariants are new enough that there is no available vaccine efficacy data on them yet, consensus is largely that a “booster is a booster” and that it is still worth getting one if you have not already. Both the bivalent vaccines and antivirals like Paxlovid are expected to remain effective against severe outcomes with these subvariants. However, US vaccine rates with the updated versions have remained underwhelming, with rates by age groups ranging from nearly 27% in adults over the age of 65 to under 12% for adults ages 18-65.
The weather is cooling and we are all increasingly spending more time inside at a time with relaxed public health measures in place. These are each viral respiratory infections, so it is important to be vigilant on measures like covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands appropriately, staying home when sick, and so on.
Important to note is that there is currently no vaccine available for RSV, though certain children may qualify to receive preventative injections of the monoclonal antibody product palivizumab during RSV seasons. Furthermore, there is no antiviral for RSV, so treatment is supportive care. There are antivirals for COVID-19 and influenza available and, of course, it is important to be vaccinated for both of these if at all possible. You can schedule appointments to get your seasonal flu shot and updated COVID-19 booster at the same at plenty of locations, many of which can be found through Vaccines.gov’s search tool.
“Les « Frankenvirus » au cœur des débats, après l’émergence du Covid-19”
In this Le Monde article on gain of function research, Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz discusses the announcements of 27 new BSL-4 laboratories since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and what these announcements, in light of loose international standards on biosafety, might mean in terms of increased risks of accidents.
“The World is Prepared for the Unthinkable”
This recent piece in CFR’s Think Global Health discusses the likely consequences of biological weapons use in Ukraine. McCloskey, Nuzzo, and Heymann write “A biological attack in Ukraine or anywhere would have profound and far-reaching political, military, and health consequences. The immediate impact would be to exacerbate the already profound human suffering that is occurring in the country and it would place further strain on already struggling health systems. Depending on the pathogen used, a biological attack could present risks beyond Ukraine. Unlike other weapons, biological agents have the potential to spread widely. Neighboring countries could be at immediate risk, but, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown, diseases can travel widely around the globe before they are noticed.”
“Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism”
This week the FBI and Department of Homeland Security released their second Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism report. Overall, it details a continued increase in domestic terrorism investigations in the US, with the government opening 1,400 investigations in 2020 versus the average of 1,000 seen in previous years. It does note that this was in part because of investigations opened as a result of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, but also that this anomaly does not fully account for the significant increase in that number. Most of these investigations were related to “…racially or ethnically driven violent extremism, anti-government or anti-authority violent extremism, and civil unrest.”
Other interesting points in the report include the that, as Lawfare explains, “…despite the increased threat, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) does not employ a single analyst focused exclusively on domestic terrorism. One could argue that the NCTC is hamstrung in some respects because its mandate, or at least a narrow reading of its statute, limits its ability to focus on terrorism not related to the international variety of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. At the same time, the assessment states Homeland Security employs only ten analysts for domestic extremism threats. However, that number represents a meteoric increase from five years earlier, when there was not a dedicated domestic terrorism analyst squad.”
“Flu: When Spillovers Spill Over”
As the authors of this Think Global Health piece explain, the US is currently in the middle of one of the largest outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in animals in US history. At least 49 million birds from backyard and commercial flocks have been culled so far in 43 states as this year’s outbreaks continue.
The authors write “Case counts and distributions in wild birds have been equally astounding. Department of Agriculture surveillance efforts in 2022 have detected HPAI in wild birds in almost every state in the continental United States, plus Alaska. Active surveillance has found more than 3,300 infected wild birds. This extensive transmission through wild avian species is more pronounced than in previous U.S. epizootics, or animal epidemics; in the 2014-2015 outbreak, fewer than 100 wild birds tested positive for H5, primarily along the Pacific Flyway, one of four major North American migration routes for birds, especially waterfowl. Affected species in this outbreak range from the relatively abundant Canada goose and wild turkey to the more vulnerable bald eagle and snowy owl. How many of these birds are actually symptomatic is difficult to determine, as detections often occur opportunistically through the sampling of dead birds and hunter harvests. Mortality in wild species is varied with some species like gulls, terns, geese, and raptors experiencing higher than usual rates, while songbirds are relatively unaffected, even asymptomatic. The variation in morbidity and mortality makes this virus even harder to track.”
“Atoms are Local”
In this essay Elliot Hershberg, a PhD student in genetics at Stanford and the mind behind The Century of Biology, discusses the industrialization of biotech and proposes the biologization of industry as a preferable alternative. He explains this concept, writing “Biologization of Industry — Many people default to a mindset of industrialization. But, why naively inherit a metaphor that dominated 19th century Britain? Biology is the ultimate distributed manufacturing platform. We are keen to explore and make true future biotechnologies that enable people to more directly and freely make whatever they need where-ever they are.”
“Compendium of Best Practices on the Engagement and Advancement of Women in Chemical Safety and Security”
From the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute: “The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), in close cooperation with international partners, stakeholders and practitioners, recognized the asymmetric portrayal of women and men in chemical safety and security; both in global literature and policy debates. To address this gap, amplify women’s voices and promote opportunities to increase their engagement in this field, OPCW and UNICRI, with the generous funding of the European Commission, developed the Compendium on “Engagement and Advancement of Women in Chemical Safety and Security”.”
“The Compendium aims to provide policymakers and practitioners in the field of chemistry with guidance to promote gender inclusivity in the chemical safety and security sector through the identification of best practices in recruiting, training and promoting gender-inclusive careers.”
What We’re Listening To 🎧
Poisons and Pestilence-13 Bonus Episode: The M Device with Simon Jones
Dr. Brett Edwards has released a new episode of his podcast, Poisons and Pestilence, covering the M device (a canister device used to release CW agents) with historian Simon Jones. In addition to the podcast, you can find Jones’ work on the M device here where he explains, “During the closing stages of the military intervention in North Russia in 1919, British chemical munitions were improvised as effective aerial bombs for the first time in history.”
Schar School PhD Virtual Open House Session
Come learn about the Schar School’s doctoral programs (including the Biodefense PhD!) and interact with faculty at this online open house. This event will take place Wednesday, November 16, at 7 pm EST. Register here.
Applying Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Research and Development to Future Epidemics
“The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats; Forum on Drug Discovery, Development, and Translation; and the Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies will organize and conduct a public, hybrid workshop on December 7-8, 2022 to explore how innovative approaches in research sparked by COVID-19 can enhance health systems preparedness and responses to emerging infectious diseases. This workshop will consider basic scientific infrastructure and essential capabilities to support medical and behavioral countermeasures that were deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic response. Workshop participants will reflect on critical scientific infrastructure for stakeholder coordination and innovations that can facilitate rapid and effective responses to emerging infectious disease threats.” Register here.
Strategies to Reach Zero Dose Children in Fragile States and Cross-border Contexts in Africa
“CORE Group and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance invite you to register to attend a webinar where experts will discuss the importance of reaching Zero Dose Children and how addressing the challenges in reaching communities with immunization interventions could diminish disease outbreaks and health system disruptions. The webinar will also provide a platform for discussions on innovative ways to reach zero dose children beyond traditional government partners in fragile contexts. It will be an opportunity le learn more about the Zero-Dose Immunization Programme (ZIP) and will feature speakers from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, International Rescue Committee(IRC), CORE Group Polio Project (CGPP) and World Vision.” This event will be hosted virtually on November 15, at 10 am EST. Register here.
ICMYI: 8th African Conference on One Health and Biosecurity
The 8th African Conference on One Health and Biosecurity concluded recently in Lagos, Nigeria. The conference aimed to “…present a unique forum to raise National, Regional and Continental awareness and engage in deep introspection and robust interactions on existing health security measures and how to strengthen them, as the first urgent step toward mitigation of emerging biological threats in Africa.” Recordings from the conference are available on the Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium (GET) Africa YouTube Channel. You can read the conference’s “Communiqué of 8th African Conference on One Health and Biosecurity themed Strengthening Health Security and Mitigating Biological Threats in Africa”.
ICYMI: Briefings in Preparation for the Ninth BWC Review Conference
Check out the recording for this event on UNIDIR’s YouTube channel. “This virtual event brought together the authors of the latest UNIDIR publications on BWC topics to provide short outlines of the key insights and ideas in their respective reports for State Parties to consider ahead of the Review Conference. These include verification, advances in science and technology, international cooperation, and potential outcomes of the Review Conference. The presentations was followed by a moderated interactive discussion with the participants.”
Biotechnology Innovation and International Security Fellowships at Stanford University
“Stanford is seeking Biotechnology Innovation & International Security Fellows, to be appointed for one year renewable for a second. Fellows will join a community of scholars hosted by the Center for International Security & Cooperation (CISAC), Bio.Polis, & the Department of Bioengineering, with mentoring by one or more faculty identified by each fellow. Applications are being accepted thru 2 December 2022.” Learn more and apply here.
START Announces Upcoming CBRN Data Suite and Portal
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)’s Unconventional Weapons and Technology division recently announced the creation of their CBRN Data Suite and Portal. The data suite is set to open in December and “…includes an event-level and an actor-level dataset. The event-level dataset is based on UWT’s Profiles of Incidents Involving CBRN and Non-state Actors (POICN) database, and is scheduled to be updated through May 2022 by the time the Data Suite and Portal goes live at the end of the year.”
“The actor-level dataset is a newly created dataset modeled after the Chemical and Biological Non-State Adversaries Database (CABNSAD) and the Radiological and Nuclear Non-State Adversaries (RANNSAD) dataset, with the new CBRN Actor dataset subsuming both CABNSAD and RANNSAD. As with the event-level dataset, the actor-level dataset is scheduled to be updated through May 2022 by the time the Data Suite and Portal launch.”
NIST Soliciting Feedback on Project Proposal to Improve Cybersecurity at Water Utility Facilities
The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) recently released a white paper discussing ways to improve utility management, operations, and service delivery at water utility sites. The paper explains that “The NCCoE has undertaken a program to determine common scenarios for cybersecurity risks among WWS utilities. This project will profile several areas, including asset management, data integrity, remote access, and network segmentation. The NCCoE will also explore the utilization of existing commercially available products to mitigate and manage these risks. The findings can be used as a starting point by WWS utilities in mitigating cybersecurity risks for their specific production environment. This project will result in a freely available NIST Cybersecurity Practice Guide.” Read the announcement and submit feedback here.