Lt. Cmdr. Michael Heimes, a sailor with Expeditionary Medical Facility-M, checks on a patient connected to a ventilator during an Intensive Care Unit night shift at Baton Rouge General Mid City campus, April 28, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Daniel R. Betancourt Jr.)

The Biothreat After COVID-19: Engineered Pathogens, More Zoonotic Outbreaks

Biotech experts cautioned that the next pandemic could be worse than COVID-19 as emerging pathogens increasingly jump from animals to humans, the number of outbreaks grows as government preparedness lags, and nefarious actors can use the same advancements as researchers to “engineer pathogens with increasing sophistication” and “catastrophic” results.

Six months into the national emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense held a virtual meeting on “The Biological Event Horizon: No Return or Total Resilience,” recorded a week ago and released Thursday. Formerly known as the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, the group was formed in 2014 and the following year issued the benchmark report National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, co-chairman of the commission, said that 2015 report “tried to calculate economic cost of our country’s failure to protect itself” but COVID-19 and more than 200,000 American deaths from the virus so far have showed they “grossly underestimated” pandemic impacts.

“In six months it is breathtaking in its scope,” Ridge said. “And as visionary as this group was and as committed as we were to making a difference, I don’t think anyone ever imagined that we’d see a replication of the Spanish flu.”

Ridge’s co-chairman, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), said the commission’s warnings pre-COVID were likened to “saying ‘the British are coming, the British are coming’… but it was hard to get anybody’s attention.”

“Of course, when the Brits were actually coming now we have experienced this horrendous pandemic — and hopefully it will generate the kind of support for preventive and protective activity in the future,” he added.

Jaime Yassif, a senior fellow in Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said it is now easier to read, write, and edit DNA and RNA, making it “easier to edit individual genes and genomes for a wide variety of viruses and bacteria including pathogens.”

“You can tinker with a pathogen and make it resistant to existing medical countermeasures,” she said. “…Notwithstanding the fact that there is risk here there are a number of researchers that are actively using these tools to do exactly this to modify and synthesize pathogens.”

In 2017, she noted, a group of Canadian researchers used $100,000 of mail-order DNA to synthesize horsepox, which is related to smallpox. By publishing a paper on it, they created an “information hazard” that could assist others in doing something similar, she added, causing controversy in the biosecurity community. “It’s making it easier for people with less tacit knowledge and skills to do these kinds of things.”

“Lowering technical barriers over time means that a wider range of actors can engineer pathogens with increasing sophistication,” Yassif said, with “the potential perhaps in the long term to create particularly damaging pathogens that could have catastrophic consequences.”

The activities of Aum Shinrkyo — the Japanese doomsday cult that unsuccessfully sprayed Tokyo with anthrax spores two years before their deadly sarin attack on the subway — and the 2001 anthrax letters in the United States show various actors have the intent to unleash bioterror, she said, “so this is a question of changing potential capabilities over time, and then there’s also an increased risk of accidental release of an engineered pathogen.”

“The lower technical barriers that we’re seeing might shape the cost-benefit calculations of some nations as they think about whether or not they want to explore the possibility of developing biological weapons,” Yassif noted. DNA synthesis screening guidelines from the federal government are positive, she said, “but it’s just not moving fast enough and it’s not broad enough in scope to keep pace with these rapid advances that we’re seeing.”

“I think there are basically two goals that we’re after — one is to ensure that the legitimate global bioscience research and development enterprise is not exploited, defended against exploitation by malicious actors that might be seeking to cause harm with weapons. And we also want to take steps to reduce accidental laboratory release risks for engineered pathogens — even in legitimate settings but potentially other types of settings as well — because they could have catastrophic consequences,” she continued. “So how do we do that? So I would argue that we need a layered defense — there’s no single thing we can do that’s going to be a silver bullet but there are a number of intervention points throughout the research and development lifecycle in the biosciences and biotechnology.”

Sohini Ramachandran, associate professor of biology, director of graduate studies for the Center for Computational Molecular Biology, and associate professor of computer science at Brown University, develops computational methods to analyze large biological datasets and has found that the impact of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 is increasing over time, surpassing that of human-specific infectious diseases.

“Not only is the number of emerging infectious diseases increasing with time but also the number of outbreaks appears to be increasing with time,” she said, adding that the “biggest contributing factors to the rise in zoonotic diseases are climate change and reductions in biodiversity from deforestation.”

“The sale and consumption of wild and rare animals also often leads to outbreaks; these factors all drive a well-known inverse relationship between disease richness and latitude, meaning that people living closer to the tropics experience and will continue to experience more outbreaks in a warming world, and the temporal duration of seasonal illnesses like influenza will continue to change and likely expand in a warming world,” she said.

Ramachandran noted that the 2019-2020 flu season “was highly unusual in that both strains A and B overlapped for much longer than normal.”

She advocated for “a national data-driven emerging infectious disease watch force” as surveillance as “the key to preventing future pandemics — ideally, such a watch force would advise many government offices at various levels of government, develop policies like travel restrictions to protect U.S. residents and also centralized outbreak data, and develop academic collaborations for academic researchers to analyze those data.” Vaccination should also be promoted as the U.S. has seen rising cases of mumps and measles despite the availability of immunization.

Nita Madhav, chief executive officer, president, and board member of Metabiota, said that combining epidemiological expertise with these computational and risk management techniques for extreme events modeling and risk analysis “can really help us to drive forward this conversation — and especially when it comes to understanding epidemics the key to it is understanding the frequency and severity.”

“As we heard, the frequency is increasing but these methods can still be used to allow us to understand what a one in 20 year event might look like or one in 50 year event or even a one in 200 year event and what level of resources would be needed to be adequately prepared and which mitigation strategies are likely to be most effective,” she said.

Madhav stressed that pandemics “are not a one in 100 year event — I know a lot of people have been talking about this and it’s very tempting to think this way because there was a big flu pandemic in 1918, but this is largely a quirk of chance and every year there’s a chance that a bad pandemic can happen by its very definition. A one in 100 year event has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, and epidemics and pandemics are happening much more frequently.”

COVID-19 “certainly is not going to be the last event and the next one could be even worse,” she added, noting how “the majority of these epidemics and pandemics are caused by diseases coming from animals and an unknown pool of reservoirs and there are millions of unknown viruses.”

Madhav agreed that “there really is a need for something similar to the National Weather Service for epidemics and pandemics,” integrating epidemic forecasting and analytics “to have earlier indicators of epidemics and pandemics before they reach a state where it’s much more difficult to contain them.”

“We also need to gain a better understanding of which pathogens might be most dangerous even before they spill over into humans,” she said. “…If we only learn one thing from this event it is the importance of early action and breaking out of the cycle of panic and neglect.”

Madhav said she often hears companies saying they “just want to see like a hurricane track type of thing for this type of event.”

“It’s very difficult to discern what the credible sources of information are and there’s such a plethora of it that it’s very difficult for the general public or decision makers to sift through all that,” she said. “And to have kind of a centralized voice that consolidates this information and makes it digestible, I think, would be something very important to have.”

Ramachandran said such an entity would “definitely interact with intelligence agencies, with international partners, with the State Department, with the Department of Education.”

She encouraged “curbing deforestation globally” as it’s “key to maintaining biodiversity and actually reduces the chance that spillover happens to humans.”

And “especially the countries where there is this sort of rare exotic wildlife trade and these live slaughter markets, every government has an interest in curbing those because those also just lead to dangerous situations for humans there in close contact with exotic animals.”

Yassif said the pandemic has been “a really instructive moment” that “highlights global vulnerability to high-consequence biological events.”

“We need to really make a significant investment across the board to protect against these kinds of risks,” she said. “…We also really need to focus on long-term planning and look what’s coming coming 5 or 10 years down the road because it could be a significant risk, and that’s why we’re really focused on engineered biothreats that could come from deliberate or accidental releases. And I think there’s a lot of white space and there’s a really big hole in the sort of developing biosecurity norms of best practices and developing more robust governance approaches that really meaningfully reduce risk.”

“Better intelligence for biological threats — it does exist, but there is significant room for improvement,” Yassif said. “There also needs to be better connectivity between the existing bioscience governance tools …and the law enforcement and security sector. They do exist, but operationally those connections are not as strong as they could be for this to really be effective.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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