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Biodefense Headlines – 22 November 2020

News highlights on health security threats and countermeasures curated by Global Biodefense

This week’s selections include the timeline for emergency use authorization of COVID-19 vaccines; virus-like particle vaccines against avian flu panzootic; and a call to act against Russia’s use of chemical weapons.

Contents

PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY

‘No One Is Listening to Us’

In the months since March, many have habituated to the horrors of the pandemic, but health-care workers do not have the luxury of looking away. As ICUs fill up across the nation, the toll of the pandemic goes beyond physical exhaustion. COVID-19 has eaten away at the emotional core of their work. The Atlantic

Now the U.S. Has Lots of Ventilators, but Too Few Specialists to Operate Them

A burst of production helped the dire shortage that defined the first wave of the coronavirus. Now, many hot spots face a different problem: They have enough ventilators, but not nearly enough workers with the years of training to operate them. NY Times

Microsoft: Russian, North Korean Hackers Target Vaccine Work

Microsoft said this week it has detected attempts by state-backed Russian and North Korean hackers to steal valuable data from leading pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers. Chinese state-backed hackers have also been targeting vaccine-makers, the U.S. government said in July while announcing criminal charges. Associated Press

MEDICAL COUNTERMEASURES

Dec. 10 FDA Panel Could Be Gateway to First EUA of COVID-19 Vaccine

BioNTech and Pfizer, which submitted their application on Friday, expect to produce globally up to 50 million doses by year-end and up to 1.3 billion doses by YE21, and said they will be able to distribute the vaccine within hours after FDA authorizes it. The companies are applying for authorization of a two-dose regimen. BioCentury

Virus-like Particle Vaccines: A Prospective Panacea Against an Avian Influenza Panzootic

Avian influenza viruses rapidly mutate and the available prophylactic vaccines, which are subtype-specific, require frequent updates to be effective against new strains. Chimeric virus-like particle (VLP) vaccines consisting of M2e and/or headless HA have shown the most potential for a universal vaccine to prevent an avian influenza panzootic. Vaccines

Novavax Posts Massive Coronavirus Vaccine Contract That Government Didn’t Disclose

A day after Pfizer’s announcement that its COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective, rival Novavax shared its $1.6 billion Operation Warp Speed contract. Notably, the Department of Health and Human Services told NPR in late August that it had “no records” of the Novavax contract. Novavax released its federal contract in a quarterly financial filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. HHS has yet to release this contract. NPR

Feds Announce COVID-19 Vaccine Agreement with Drug Stores

The list of pharmacies joining the distribution partnership include retail chains like Rite Aid and Walgreens, supermarket drug stores like Albertsons and Publix, and big box stores like Costco and Walmart. The agreement to distribute free coronavirus vaccines after they are approved follows a collaboration with CVS and Walgreens to deliver vaccines to nursing homes and administer shots. AP

Ebola-Negative Neonates Born to Ebola-Infected Mothers After Monoclonal Antibody Therapy

Few fetuses survive childbirth when the mother is positive for Ebola virus, with almost all being miscarried or stillborn, or dying shortly after birth. This case series reports liveborn neonates to Ebola virus-positive mothers who received investigational monoclonal antibody treatment (mAB114 or REGN-EB3). The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health

Vaccine Innovation Spurred by the Long Wait for an Ebola Virus Vaccine

The 2013–16 Ebola virus outbreak—the largest ever recorded—substantially hastened the development of an Ebola virus vaccine. Since then, the safety and efficacy of a recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV)-based Ebola virus vaccine was shown, leading to its licensure by the European Medicine Agency in 2019. The Lancet Infectious Diseases

CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS

Trump Should Act Against Russia’s Use of Chemical Weapons

In response to the Navalny attack, the European Union and UK slapped sanctions on six Kremlin, Federal Security Service, and Ministry of Defense officials and one state laboratory they hold responsible for the attack. Yet Russia continues to deny that it possesses or produces Novichok agents. Clearly, more action is needed to deter Russia’s further use of chemical weapons. Defense One

North Korea and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Evidence

North Korea’s announcement that it is developing a vaccine for COVID-19 has focused renewed attention on Pyongyang’s purported biological weapons program. While North Korea may once have had and may still be pursuing a BW capability, official US and South Korean public records do not indicate North Korea possesses an advanced BW program. Stimson Center

Implementing BTWC Article VII: Thoughts for the Meeting of Experts and the Review Conference

By setting up an institution within the ISU or UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, to which states parties would report immediately any unusual disease outbreak or serious mishap in a biodefence program, states parties would elevate the current confidence-building measures to assurance instruments by making such reporting mandatory. The Trench

The Blessing and Curse of Biotechnology: A Primer on Biosafety and Biosecurity

In addition to a lack of verification, the BWC is often perceived by scholars as not readily addressing the impact of emerging technologies, such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. Another issue for the BWC is a lack of funding, as many member states have outstanding dues. Carnegie Endowment

Marina Litvinenko Submits €3.5m ECHR Claim Against Russia

The widow of Alexander Litvinenko has submitted a claim against Russia to the European court of human rights (ECHR), seeking €3.5m (£3.1m) in compensation for his murder by radiation poisoning in London. A public inquiry concluded that her husband’s murder in 2006 was probably ordered by Vladimir Putin. The submission also asks the Strasbourg judges to rule on the significance of the pattern of targeted assassinations and attempted killings allegedly carried out by Russian state agents across Europe and the Middle East. The Guardian

How Japan Could Have Won World War II

During World War II, Japan infamously deployed biological weapons in attacks that infected and killed thousands of Chinese citizens. Less well known, however, is the fact that Japanese strategists also planned to deploy plague bombs against U.S. forces on at least four separate occasions—each only narrowly averted by circumstance. The last such attack, known as Operations Cherry Blossoms at Night, envisioned bombing San Diego with plague-infected fleas.  National Interest and U.S. Naval Institute

Biosecurity in the Wake of COVID-19: The Urgent Action Needed

Given the scale of the threat evidenced by the current pandemic, biosecurity needs to be a top priority moving forward. Not only do efforts need to be stepped up to try to prevent the next pandemic (natural or engineered), but resilience needs to be built by developing early warning systems, the capacity to track outbreaks, and medical countermeasures, including “next generation” vaccines. Ideally, efforts need to be globally coordinated, but if this is not possible, a ‘coalition of the willing’ led by the U.S. needs to step up. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

SURVEILLANCE + DETECTION

The ‘False-Positive PCR’ Problem Is Not a Problem

RNA is a surrogate marker for the amount of virus but not an actual measure because PCR methods can’t tell you a virus is infectious. People are very chuffed to have learned this fact in 2020 by the way. You can tell because they say so. A lot. But despite their newfound out-of-context knowledge they actually know very little about what they’re talking about. Virology Down Under

Three Nations Note H5N8 Avian Flu Outbreaks; Netherlands Finds H5N1 Reassortant

In the latest highly pathogenic avian flu developments, three European countries reported more detections in wild birds, including a United Kingdom report of a second outbreak in poultry and a Netherlands detection of an H5N1 reassortant. Germany reported 42 more H5N8 outbreaks in wild birds. CIDRAP

The Problem with Repeat COVID-19 Survivor PCR Follow-Up Testing

A JAMA Internal Medicine research letter finds that 18% of recovered COVID-19 patients test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but only 3% (1 of 32) carry replicating virus in their respiratory tract. The practice of repeat testing with highly sensitive RT-PCR which can detect nonviable remnants of the virus following recovery needs further consideration. CIDRAP

Navy Research Confirms Need for Strict Coronavirus Testing Protocols

Young, healthy people who contract the coronavirus are often asymptomatic, very rarely need hospital care and can transmit the virus to a roommate unwittingly even when following strict quarantine orders, according to two new studies from the U.S. Navy. The findings support the need for strong measures, like daily testing, that go beyond the temperature checks and symptom reporting now commonly deployed. NY Times

Comparison of Seven Commercial SARS-Cov-2 Rapid Point-of-Care Antigen Tests

This study compares 7 available AgPOCT devices against an established RT-PCR assay by conducting a single-center evaluation in a laboratory setting. The aim was to  provide a reflection of test performance based on analytical properties and ease some of the challenges associated with clinical evaluation of AgPOCTs during the present pandemic situation. medRxiv

COMMENTARY

Vaccine Czar Calls on Trump to Allow Contact with Biden

Moncef Slaoui has called on the White House to allow Operation Warp Speed to make contact with Joe Biden’s transition team, warning that interrupting its work would put thousands of lives at risk. ARS Technica

First It Was Masks; Now Some Refuse Testing for SARS-CoV-2

Politics, obstinate individualism, fear of isolation and quarantine, potential loss of income…test avoidance appears to be a growing problem, at least anecdotally. Many of the same people who dismiss the need to test feel the same way about wearing a mask, in part because they think no one has the right to tell them to do either. JAMA

Iowa’s Covid Wave and the Limits of Personal Responsibility

On Monday night, Iowa governor Kim Reynolds came to her constituents with some surprising news. Along with a series of new restrictions on business operations and social gatherings, she was, for the first time, issuing a state-wide mask mandate. “No one wants to do this. I don’t want to do this,” Reynolds said during the live address. Yes, Iowans were well aware. That was not the surprising part. Wired

COVID-19 RESOURCE UPDATE

Courtesy of the CDC Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program Division of State and Local Readiness

COVID-19 Vaccines Were Developed in Record Time – But are These Game-Changers Safe?

Testing Sewage Can Give Schools and Businesses a Heads-Up on the Spread of COVID-19