Biodefense Headlines – 21 March 2021 .

Infectious disease



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

This week’s selections include cooperative engagement on genomic surveillance; chemical mass casualty decontamination; high biocontainment labs for veterinary vaccine development; and assessing China’s new biosafety framework.


SUPERBUGS Act of 2021

Mike Levin (D-CA) has introduced the Saving Us from Pandemic Era Resistance by Building a Unified Global Strategy (SUPERBUGS) Act of 2021. The bill proposes the U.S. “formulate a strategy for entering into agreements with foreign countries to help to develop and commercialize (including through contracts with the private sector) new drugs to address pandemics, including antimicrobial drugs.”

Assessing China’s New Biosafety Law

COVID-19 highlighted the absence of a central agency and legal framework in China to provide direction for the hundreds of existing policies related to the management of threats posed by infectious diseases and biotechnology. China’s new Biosafety Law creates a single national biosecurity framework. This ambitious set of laws needs to be accompanied by verification and accountability measures to ensure its proper implementation. Pandora Report

Bipartisan Bill Pushes to Improve Public Health Preparedness with Coordinated “One Health” Approach

The Advancing Emergency Preparedness One Health Act would: Advance workforce development related to preventing and responding to disease outbreaks in animals and humans; Improve coordination between federal agencies studying human, animal health, and the environment; and Foster understanding of the connections between human, animal, and environmental health.

Commentary on Foreign Affairs Biosecurity Article and Role of BWC

“The thing holding us back from a larger (BWC) administrative architecture is not the size of the US’s financial contribution. It’s the countries that are delinquent on their bills and yet refuse to even contemplate increasing the size of the organization until we add an inspectorate and a verification regime, as if that will somehow be cheaper and their debt will magically disappear.” Twitter

UK’s Drastic Cut to Overseas Aid Risks Future Pandemics, Say SAGE Experts

Projects attempting to reduce the risk of animal viruses passing to humans, and work examining antimicrobial resistance, both possible sources of the next global health emergency, were affected by a £120m fall in research funding from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) agency. The fall was triggered by the government’s controversial decision to cut overseas aid from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. An open letter signed by well over 3,000 UK academics and global health experts warns that the cut will hit “some of the world’s most complex and challenging global health problems”. The Guardian

Obama Alum Nominated to Oversee Pandemic Preparedness Agency

President Biden plans to nominate Dawn O’Connell, an Obama administration alumna and leader in responding to emerging infectious diseases, to serve as the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Within her purview at ASPR is the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which funds medical countermeasures., Bloomberg Law


The B1.351 and P.1 Variants Extend SARS-Cov-2 Host Range to Mice

Here researchers show that unlike the initial virus, variants of concern (VOCs) are able to infect common laboratory mice, replicating to high titers in the lungs. This host range expansion is explained in part by the acquisition of changes at key positions of the receptor binding domain that enable binding to the mouse angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) cellular receptor, although differences between viral lineages suggest that other factors are involved in the capacity of SARS-CoV-2 VOCs to infect mice. bioRxiv (preprint)

WHO GACVS Statement on AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Signals

So far, more than 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been administered in Europe and more than 27 million doses of the Covishield vaccine (AstraZeneca vaccine by Serum Institute of India) have been administered in India. The GACVS COVID-19 subcommittee review last week found the available data do not suggest any overall increase in clotting conditions such as deep venous thrombosis or pulmonary embolism following administration of these vaccines. World Health Organization

Deletion of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Cytoplasmic Tail Increases Infectivity in Pseudovirus Neutralization Assays

The development of a high throughput pseudovirus neutralization assay is critical for the development of vaccines and immune-based therapeutics. In this study, researchers show that deletion of the cytoplasmic tail of the SARS-CoV-2 spike leads to pseudoviruses with enhanced infectivity. This SΔCT13-based pseudovirus neutralization assay should be broadly useful for the field. Journal of Virology

Developing Therapeutic Approaches for 21st Century Emerging Infectious Viral Diseases

Rather than only focusing on known risks, dedicated efforts must be made toward pre-emptive research focused on outbreak-prone virus families. Emphasis should also focus on orally available drugs for outpatient use, if possible, and on identifying combination therapies that combat viral and immune-mediated pathologies, extend the effectiveness of therapeutic windows and reduce drug resistance. Nature Medicine

State’s Hydroxychloroquine Supply Remains Mostly Untouched

States like South Dakota are left with thousands of tablets of hydroxychloroquine that former President Donald Trump claimed to be effective in preventing the coronavirus. The FDA rescinded an EUA for the drug for use in COVID-19 patients on June 15. Rapid City Journal


As an Epidemiologist, States Reopening Too Soon Is Giving Me Pandemic Déjà Vu

“We are not yet close to levels of vaccination needed to reach herd immunity, and removing or reducing restrictions too quickly before vaccines can be administered leaves us susceptible to yet another wave, particularly as more infectious viral variants have been identified across the country.” Self

These Scientists Are Already on the Hunt for the Next Pandemic

A rich viral biodiversity, combined with a weak surveillance system, a mushrooming population, and poor public health infrastructure means that any disease outbreak is ripe for spreading like wildfire across the continent, and the world. Now a new disease surveillance network is trying to stop the next pandemic before it happens. Wired

Nowcasting Epidemics of Novel Pathogens: Lessons From COVID-19

Going forward, epidemic nowcasting will require scientists to distill informative or actionable insights from an increasingly diverse range of data. Misinterpretation or misuse of these nowcasts will fuel infodemics, as we have learned to our detriment during the ongoing pandemic. Such infodemics can be mitigated by developing sophisticated information systems that are professionally designed to robustly collate and curate epidemic nowcasts for policymakers and public health professionals. Nature Medicine

Determining the Role of Health Care Settings in a Pandemic

To get a better picture of how sickness moves between communities and hospitals, the researchers are bringing together two computer models of disease transmission. “One of things we’re learning is that a lot of very granular decisions at the level of the individual hospital or nursing home end up having large impacts for the community as a whole.” WSU Insider

Podcast: Covid-19, Biothreats, and Biodefense Policy

Host Beverly Kirk is joined by Girl Security scholar Sruthi Katakam and Johns Hopkins University health security scholar Dr. Gigi Gronvall. The group discusses the holes in U.S. biological policy revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the role of dual-use biotechnologies in strategy and policy. CSIS


Former Biotech Director Charged with Obstruction of Justice Over Attempts to Acquire Neurotoxin Ricin

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts charged Ishtiaq Ali Saaem, 37, with obstruction of justice for lying about his attempts to acquire 100 castor bean packets in 2015 in order to develop the bioterror poison ricin. BioSpace

High Dose of VSV-Vectored Ebola Virus Vaccine Causes Vesicular Disease in Swine Without Horizontal Transmission

Since the parental virus VSV, which was used to construct VSV-EBOV, is pathogenic for livestock and the vaccine virus may be shed at low levels by vaccinated humans, widespread deployment of the vaccine required investigation into its infectivity and transmissibility in VSV-susceptible livestock species. Emerging Microbes & Infections

Mass Casualty Decontamination for Chemical Incidents: Research Outcomes and Future Priorities

In vitro and human volunteer studies have established the relative effectiveness of different decontamination protocols for a range of chemical agents. Here researchers identify a range of priority areas for future study including establishing the significance of the ‘wash-in’ effect and developing effective strategies for the decontamination of hair. Environmental Research and Public Health

Challenges and Opportunities in the Use of High and Maximum Biocontainment Facilities in Developing and Licensing Risk Group 3 and Risk Group 4 Agent Veterinary Vaccines

The development, licensure, and product manufacturing of next-generation molecular-based RG-3 and RG-4 veterinary vaccines largely ignored by the global animal health biopharmaceutical sector can have an important positive impact on food security and One Health. ILAR Journal


Rising Covid-19 Cases in Some States Highlight ‘Precarious Position’ as Variants Build Up in U.S.

In New Jersey, average daily cases fell below 3,000 in late February and have recently been around 3,800. Michigan saw its average daily infections go from just over 1,000 to more than 2,000 over the same period, and hospitalizations have been increasing for three weeks. Other states, including Minnesota and Missouri, have also seen infections inch up in recent weeks, while many other states’ progress from earlier this year has flattened out, not budging from levels that would have once alarmed the public. STAT

How Cooperative Engagement Programs Strengthen Sequencing Capabilities for Biosurveillance and Outbreak Response

Cooperative engagement programs help to strengthen both biosurveillance and research capabilities to answer important questions regarding infectious diseases. An important component of these programs is building trust among institutions and countries by strengthening sequencing capabilities together. This enables sample and data sharing, which is critical throughout the duration of an epidemic or pandemic. Frontiers in Public Health

Disease-Carrying Mosquito Species Returns to Florida

Aedes scapularis is already established on the peninsula, and researchers predict that its population might spread along much of coastal Florida and along the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Texas – based on environmental suitability. In South America, the species has been found infected with pathogens such as yellow fever virus and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. The Scientist


B117 Deadlier Than Other COVID-19 Strains, More Data Affirm

The B117 COVID-19 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom in October 2020, may pose a 61% higher risk of 28-day mortality, according to a study published today in Nature. The finding is in line with last week’s BMJ study that reported B117 had a 64% higher 28-day risk of death among people older than 30. CIDRAP

“Airborne” Semantics: An Exhausting and Unnecessarily Contentious Debate

Different fields have different terms for different things. “Airborne” usually refers to long-range aerosol transmission, which only occurs for SARS-CoV-2 when the conditions allow for it. Using a term in a field-specific way is not “denial.” Dr. Rasmussen

Leveraging Risk Communication Science Across US Federal Agencies

US federal agencies face additional structural limitations that can hinder attempts at impactful risk communication. Clearance processes and political sensitivities can impede timely action. There is no formal venue for bringing together risk communication practitioners and researchers working in government agencies, which can result in competing risk messages. Nature Human Behavior

Firefighters — ‘Health Care Providers on s Truck’ — Signal Pandemic Burnout

Firefighters in multiple states said the vaccine prioritizations and the pandemic overall exposed a startling misunderstanding of — or lack of concern for — their role in the medical system. CBRNE Central


How A ‘Rag Tag Team’ of Scientists Joined Forces to Fight COVID-19 on Campus

On the second floor of the BioFrontiers Institute, a young team of “COVID Warriors,” as they call themselves, processes up to 2,500 saliva samples daily, from free campus screening sites using a new test invented in a campus lab. Results are recorded one-by-one, late at night, by a sometimes bleary-eyed post-doc, who volunteered to help last spring and never stopped. Then, they’re delivered via a smartphone app developed by campus computer scientists. CU Boulder Today