Pandora Report: 10.23.2020

Tomorrow is World Polio Day! In 1988, the World Health Assembly pledged to prioritize polio eradication, and the virus was still present in 125 countries. By 2017, only 3 countries were reporting cases of wild poliovirus. Today, the virus has been reduced to only one type and comprehensive eradication is within reach. Also, Happy 25th Anniversary to CRDF Global! This weekend marks the first games for the Big 10. How will this impact rising case numbers in the Big 10 region? The Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive identified 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC).

In Memoriam: Dennis M. Gormley

We are very sad to announce the passing of Dennis M. Gormley, nonproliferation expert and husband of Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley.  The Biodefense Program offers its deepest condolences to Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, where Dennis worked for several years, issued this in memoriam:

“It is with great sadness that the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) notes the passing of our long-time colleague and friend, Dennis M. Gormley. A recognized expert on arms control and weapons of mass destruction proliferation—and a leading specialist in particular on cruise missile proliferation—Mr. Gormley served as CNS Senior Fellow during the early 2000s, based in the Center’s Washington, DC, office. Among Dennis’s important contributions to the nonproliferation field are Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Praeger, 2008) and A Low Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (National Defense University, 2014, with Andrew S. Erickson and Jingdong Yuan). His articles have appeared in numerous scholarly publications, including the CNS peer-reviewed journal, the Nonproliferation Review. We extend our sincere condolences to Dennis’s wife, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, another former member of the CNS family.”

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Complex Revealed

On 19 October, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive released a major report on Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the organization responsible for Syria’s chemical weapon and ballistic missile programs. The report, based on a two -year investigation of information provided by Syrian defectors and open sources, identifies 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to the SSRC. According to the report, Institute 3000 was responsible for developing Syria’s chemical weapons and Branch 450 was responsible for protecting and transporting these weapons and preparing them for use. Branch 410 of Institute 2000 and Branch 797 of Institute 4000 produced chlorine barrel bombs that were used extensively throughout the Syrian civil war. In April, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) identified the Syrian Arab Air Force as being responsible for a chlorine barrel bomb attack against a hospital in Ltamenah in March 2017. Institute 4000 was also responsible for developing the short-range rockets filled with sarin that were used in East Ghouta in August 2013. The role of the Assad regime in conducting the East Ghouta attack and the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun were the subject of separate studies by Open Society Justice Initiative, Syrian Archive, and Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression which were sent to the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office in early October for investigation as international war crimes. Biodefense program director Professor Gregory Koblentz assisted the Open Society Justice Initiative in the preparation of these reports as a pro bono consultant. 

The release of these reports is incredibly timely in the wake of Syria’s refusal to comply with a deadline issued by the OPCW’s Executive Council that Syria comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention and declare all of its chemical weapons and production facilities by early October. On 14 October, the Director-General of the OPCW informed states parties that Syria had not provided any additional information as required. Syria’s non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention will be addressed at the Conference of States Parties which will take place on November 30-December 4, 2020 at the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. 

CRDF Global is Celebrating 25 Years of Safety, Security, and Sustainability

2020 marks the 25th year of CRDF Global’s commitment to promoting global security and stability! CRDF Global is an independent nonprofit organization that provides flexible logistical support, program design and management, and strategic capacity building programs in the areas of higher education, CBRNE security and nonproliferation, border security, cybersecurity, global health, technology entrepreneurship, and international professional exchanges. Earlier this month, CRDF global was awarded two subcontracts from Leidos in support of the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). CRDF Global will be supporting the DTRA-BTRP mission of facilitating the security, detection, and surveillance of diseases caused by exceptionally dangerous pathogens. In the Philippines and Jordan, the organization will mentor and train researchers at government agencies and academic institutions in writing competitive research proposals for international funding and technical articles suitable for submission to peer-reviewed publications.

Trump Isn’t Contagious Now. But His Administration Will Still Get People Sick.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Term Assistant Professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program and infection prevention expert, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post about Trump’s recent rallies demonstrating his dismissive approach to the ongoing pandemic. Though the US has surpassed 8 million cases of COVID-19, Trump continues to espouse that the pandemic is NBD and that the disease “affects virtually nobody.” On 2 October, both Trump and the First Lady tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a short hospitalization for him. Trump’s first post-hospital rally was held 12 October, merely one week after his diagnosis, an event that likely exposed many of his own supporters to the virus. Though Trump ignored the safety of our population, Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate did not: she cancelled campaign events due to a staffer and an airline attendant with whom she was in close contact testing positive for COVID-19. Read Popescu’s article here.

Call to Action: CSIS-LSHTM High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) convened the High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation. The Panel shared a set of five recommendations for US leadership:

  1. The rapid launch of an independent panel on vaccines and misinformation to stimulate an updated national conversation and carry out a swift assessment of the decline in public trust and confidence in vaccines, public authorities, and science, as well as the root causes of these losses and the implications therein
  2. The public sector should guide innovations for reaching diverse and underserved populations with vaccines and other health and social services support
  3. Mainstream traditional and digital media outlets should commit publicly and voluntarily to improving the information climate related to vaccines
  4. Leaders in the critical social and economic sectors should engage in greater activism
  5. The administration should create a new capacity within the National Security Council (NSC) directorate that facilitates collaboration across agencies and sectors to address global health security and biodefense

Read the full CSIS-LSHTM Call to Action here.

Winners of NTI’s 2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition Announced

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security Network announced the winners of the fourth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition, at which Dr. Gregory Koblentz, the Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was a judge. The winning team included Jonas Sandbrink, a medical student at the University of Oxford; Joshua Monrad, a master’s candidate in health policy, planning, and financing at the University of London (LSHTM, LSE); and Sriharshita Musunuri, a chemistry and computer science undergraduate student at Stanford University. These three students developed a paper, “Widening the Framework for Regulation of Dual-Use Research in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which argues that governments and research entities need to take special steps to reduce the possibility of dual-use research that can be exploited during a pandemic when the scientific community is focusing on vital research to advance vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The winning authors recommend expanding the definition of dual-use research of concern, strengthening regulatory frameworks for dual-use research oversight, and developing robust mechanisms beyond policymaking to reinforce dual-use considerations in biomedical research.

The Inside Story of How Trump’s COVID-19 Coordinator Undermined the World’s Top Health Agency

In July, a meeting of COVID-19 experts from across the US government received alarming news. White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx removed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s system for collecting hospital data in favor of a private contractor, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies Inc. Birx’s decision to pull the plug on the CDC’s data system was based on the agency’s inability to collect 100% of the hospital COVID-19 data every day, a practically impossible expectation. Birx’s demand would require that every hospital in the nation clean and update all of their COVID-related data on a daily basis while also providing medical care for COVID patients and non-COVID patients. The loss of control over COVID-19 hospital data is one among many factors contributing to the ongoing crisis at the CDC. Birx’s public comments lambasting the CDC have further undermined its work and expertise. Though she has received praise for being a “good scientist who gets things done,” she has also been criticized for railroading people, failing to listen to experts, and failing to recognize her own lack of a background in respiratory disease outbreaks. The abandoned CDC system, the National Healthcare Safety Network, used for the better part of 20 years was functional but imperfect; the TeleTracking system is operating with a greater lag, running 3-4 days behind. The CDC system showed 3-6% missing data for items such as COVID-19 inpatient bed occupancy and ventilator use; TeleTracking showed 36%-57% missing data.

As Coronavirus Surges, Select Subcommittee Releases White House Reports Contradicting President Trump on Testing, Masks

Reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force reveal that the administration has been aware for weeks that cases are mounting, spurring a need for mask mandates and increased testing. These revelations arise even as Trump openly downplayed the pandemic and held crowded events for his campaign. The reports validate that testing levels are too low to contain SARS-CoV-2 and it recommends that all 50 states increase testing, laboratory capacity, or testing surveillance activities. The Task Force calls on 11 states to dramatically increase testing at universities, 12 states to increase testing capacity, and encourages test results to be available with 48 hours. At present, report show that 31 states are in the “red zone” to instigate mask mandates.

The Big Ten is Making a Big Mistake

The first Big Ten football games are scheduled for this weekend, reversing the conference’s previous decision to postpone fall sports. Though states in this conference were seeing improvements in their case numbers, most have experienced surges of late. According to the Center for Health Security, all states except Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have reported new record high daily incidence since August. Yesterday, health officials in Washtenaw County, Michigan, home to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, issued a “stay in place” order to college students in response to increasing incidence among students and the university community. Several mayors are concerned that the Big Ten schools are not taking sufficient precautions against the virus and signed an open letter to the conference and universities urging them to heighten safeguards during football games. This weekend will show whether or not increased safety measures were implemented and reveal the impact of resuming football season in COVID-19.

Pandora Report: 10.16.2020

Today is World Food Day! The pandemic, conflict, and climate change are increasing hunger across globe, so this year’s theme centers around growing, nourishing, and sustaining together. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN calls for global solidarity to help all populations recover from the crisis, and to make food systems more resilient and robust.  Speaking of the pandemic, winter is coming – how will the impending flu season impact the COVID-19 pandemic? As a friendly reminder, get your flu shot ASAP!

World CRISPR Day: 20 October

October 20th is World CRISPR Day! Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is a technology that enables gene editing. World CRISPR Day will bring together the genome engineering community to discuss how to safely enable discovery, therapeutic innovation, and practical applications. Synthego is hosting a conference on World CRISPR Day that features Dr. Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry and CRISPR pioneer. Register for the conference here.

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the characteristic in which microbes – viruses, bacteria, and fungi – change over time and exposure in ways that render antimicrobial medicines futile against them. Globally, about 700,000 people die from these infections annually. The combination of growing resistance across microbes to multiple therapeutics with the lagging creation of new drugs has made AMR a global issue. In the US, there are over 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and 35,000 deaths each year. Measuring economic impact is complicated, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that a specific subset of AMR infection caused at least $4.8 billion in medical costs in 2017.

To better address this growing threat to public health, the US just released the 2020-2025 National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB), which shares the “coordinated, strategic actions that the United States Government will take in the next five years to improve the health and wellbeing of all Americans by changing the course of antibiotic resistance.” The latest CARB builds on the 2014 National Strategy for CARB and the 2015 National Action Plan. The updated Plan continues to prioritize infection prevention and control in order to reduce the spread of AMR infections and shrink the need for antimicrobial use. The Plan consists of a One Health Approach that integrates activities related to the health of humans, animals, plants, and the environment. Additionally, the Plan focuses on data collection and use in order to further the understanding of the process of resistance and to support the development of new diagnostics and treatment options. The US has five goals to reduce the incidence and impact of AMR infections: (1)  slow the emergence of resistant bacteria and prevent the spread of resistant infection; (2) strengthen national One Health surveillance efforts; (3) advance development and use of rapid and innovative diagnostic tests; (4) accelerate basic and applied R&D for new antimicrobials; and (5) improve international collaboration and capacities for AMR prevention, surveillance, control, and R&D. Read the latest CARB Plan here.

Murder He Wrote

A recent essay by Natasha Bajema, Founder and CEO of Nuclear Spin Cycle, LLC, and Ronit Langer, Scoville Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the importance of protecting biodata for national security and for staying out of the slammer. The digitization of biodata – human genomes, gene sequences, DNA from living organisms, and other human health-related information – is revolutionizing medicine, but also altering human interaction in the real world. The authors describe three critical dimensions of biodata that are essential to protecting national security and “keeping you out of prison in the event you’re someday accused of murdering your colleague.” These three dimensions of biodata exhibit the strategic value of such data, but also reveal the mounting risks to US national security without suitable protections against discrimination, error, unauthorized access, misuse, and theft.

The three dimensions are the digital-to-physical, privacy, and big data. The digital-to-physical dimension is a game changer given that scientists can now use gene synthesis techniques to transform 2-D digital data into 3-D physical material that exists outside of a computer and forms the basis of living organisms. Within the privacy dimension, individuals are increasingly having their genomes sequenced by medical and commercial entities, so the tiny segment of their genome that is unique is now information that others can obtain and potentially exploit. Consumer-based DNA testing, like 23&Me, does not provide the same protections afforded to whole genome sequencing performed for medical reasons, which is part of an individual’s medical record protected under US law. The big data dimension focuses on the need to leverage the potential of gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR, to improve human health and power precision medicine by providing scientists with “accurate and digitized knowledge about gene sequences and genomes of living organisms.” Scientists and medical researchers need “access to reliable collections of big data and sophisticated machine learning tools to analyze massive volumes of biodata.”

Documentary – America’s Medical Supply Crisis

A new collaborative documentary from PBS Frontline, The Associated Press, and the Global Reporting Centre, America’s Medical Supply Crisis, addresses the question, “Why was the United States left scrambling for critical medical equipment as the coronavirus swept the country?” The film delves into the supply chain weaknesses and failures that led to personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages and the political delays that worsened it. The investigation includes primary source documents as well as interviews of experts in business and science, government officials, those involved in PPE production and distribution, and workers affected by the shortages. Watch the documentary here.

Winter Is Coming

Winter is coming and brings with it some added complications to the raging pandemic: cold and flu season. The seasonal flu is a viral respiratory infection that presents with symptoms similar to COVID-19. Last year in the US, the fall and winter months saw a 40-fold increase in flu cases compared to the spring and summer months. Another red flag as we approach wintertime is that mortality from the 1918 influenza outbreak was five times as high in the US during the late fall and winter than in the summer. Unfortunately, the gaps in COVID-19 knowledge about the infectious dose needed to acquire the disease impedes transmission estimates; however, some preparations can be made. If possible, boost air circulation indoors and use good filters to reduce the amount of virus collecting in the space. The seasonal flu vaccine is more important now more than ever before, so get your flu shot ASAP!

Database Brings Clarity to Chemical Weapons Lists

A new database of chemical warfare agents (CWAs) includes molecular structures and other key information to help “facilitate communication between chemists and policymakers.” The database was developed by Stefano Costanzi, Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University; Charlotte K. Slavick, Department of Chemistry at American University; Brent O. Hutcheson, Department of Chemistry at American University; Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program; and Richard T. Cupitt, Senior Fellow and Director Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention Program at The Stimson Center. Chemical weapons are controlled by three international frameworks: The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) bans the use of any toxic chemical as a weapon; the Australia Group coordinates export regulations for CWA precursors; and the Wassenaar Arrangement is dedicated to arms control of CWAs. Each of these frameworks maintains its own list of CWAs and precursors, and the database organizes chemicals from all lists into an online database with additional details on each item. View the curated lists of chemicals here.

Upcoming Event – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program is sponsoring an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. Please join a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event will be moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The event will be held as a live webinar on 17 November from Noon to 1:30 EST. Register at https://bit.ly/34vDJRQ.

Inside the Fall of the CDC

2020 will likely be the darkest era in the 74-year history of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has fallen from its station as the premier public health agency to a “target of anger, scorn and even pity.” ProPublica conducted its own investigation into the stumbles of the CDC in the COVID-19 response. The analysis ProPublica includes hundreds of emails and other internal government documents and interviews of over 30 CDC employees, contractors, and Trump administration officials with first-hand knowledge of key moments in the pandemic pandemonium. Senior staff members at CDC detail battles about protecting the US population from COVID-19, but also a war to protect science from the administration. Regrettably, these battles have mostly been lost by the CDC. According to ProPublica, in the aggregate, these documents and interviews paint a picture of “an insular, rigorous agency colliding head-on with an administration desperate to preserve the impression that it had the pandemic under control.” CDC experts, even veterans with international notoriety, were sidelined, silenced, or shifted to different roles. Nearly a year into the pandemic, many worry that the CDC has lost the public’s trust and confidence, and the timeline to recover that faith could take years. Most unfortunately, longtime CDC staff are also losing trust in their own agency. One interviewee said, “Many of us who might be viewed as complicit need to decide whether we need to leave. Or can we be part of the ‘never again’ so that the agency never gets this kind of political interference again?”

The Coronavirus Unveiled

The New York Times debuted an interactive article that details the structure of SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19. The resource covers the what is known about the virus’s protein spike, shield of sugar molecules, tangled genome, and more. Spike proteins play an essential role: latching onto host cells in our airway to allow the virus to slip inside. The virus uses a shield comprised of sugar to hide from the antibodies seeking to overpower it. On 10 January, Chinese scientists published the 30,000-letter sequence of the virus’s genome, which required the precise untangling RNA strands. Read the interactive article here to learn more about the pathogen the world is fighting.

Pandora Report: 10.9.2020

On this day in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the atomic program that would become the Manhattan Project. And on this day in 2020, we are facing continued breaches of the Chemical Weapons Convention in Syria, the resignation of Rick Bright from the NIH, the uncertainty of what to do should many in federal leadership be incapacitated, and Alaskapox. In good news, this week we are debuting another new contributor to the Pandora Report, Michelle Grundahl! Michelle is a student in the Biodefense MS Program and her academic interests center around the interface of One Health and biodefense.

Commentary – Agri-Pulse’s Harvesting Perspectives: Agriculture and Food Policy Summit

Michelle Grundahl, a student in the Biodefense MS Program, attended the virtual 2020 Ag & Food Policy Summit held by Agri-Pulse. The Summit highlighted the links between food security and national security. This event consisted of topics in food trade, farming practices, agricultural technology, biosecurity, food contamination, and national stability. Read Grundahl’s takeaways here.

Upcoming Event – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program is sponsoring an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. Please join a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event will be moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The event will be held as a live webinar on 17 November from Noon to 1:30 EST. Register at https://bit.ly/34vDJRQ.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Launched a New App!

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is now available as a mobile app! Here, you can read the latest stories for free and access the premium 2020 magazine issues! The app is available for download on the Apple Store, Google Play, and Amazon/Kindle Store.

Rick Bright, Trump Administration Vaccine Expert Turned Whistle Blower, Resigns NIH Post

On Tuesday, Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert for the Trump administration, resigned from the federal government. In April, Bright was abruptly reassigned from serving as the Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to a lower position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After the demotion, Bright filed a formal whistleblower complaint stating that he was “involuntarily transferred to a lower position at the National Institutes of Health because he raised concerns about the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response and about nepotism in the Department of Health and Human Services.” He amended the whistleblower complaint the day he resigned, stating that he had been given just one assignment since his reassignment, which he completed before stepping down. HHS has ignored the recommendation from the Office of Special Counsel, which reviews whistleblower complaints, that Bright be reinstated to his old job at BARDA pending a full investigation of his complaint.

COVID-19 & Achieving Health Equity

The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions recently released a new report, COVID-19 & Achieving Health Equity: Congressional Action is Necessary to Address Racism and Inequality in the US Health Care System. The SAR-CoV-2 pandemic has disproportionately hit Black, Latinx, Tribal communities, and other communities of color, which are suffering from the virus and dying from it at a higher rate. The disproportionate impact is “particularly true for people of color who have a disability, are older adults, have preexisting conditions, are LGBTQIA+, or are low-income workers.” This report examines the relationship between the pandemic, disparity in infection rates and health outcomes, and structural racism within the healthcare system. The review illustrates the impact that the pandemic has had on communities of color and provides initial steps that Congress can take to start addressing inequality and systemic racism within the healthcare system.

Symptoms of a Broken System: The Gender Gap in COVID-19 Decision-Making

A new commentary in BMJ Global Health highlights the “glaring lack” of females in COVID-19 pandemic decision-making bodies. An analysis of 87 countries found that only 3.5% of 115 identified COVID-19 decision-making and expert task forces have gender parity in their membership; 85.2% are majority male. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, men have long dominated leadership positions in global health, which is a symptom of a broken system in which governance fails to be inclusive. This lack of inclusivity spans gender, geography, sexual orientation, race, socio-economic status or disciplines within and beyond health. Inequitable power structures are undermining an effective response to COVID-19 and costing lives. The authors analyzed quantitative data to estimate the gender gap in task forces established to prevent, monitor, and mitigate the pandemic. Read the full commentary here.

Chemical Weapons in Syria

On Monday, a coalition of non-governmental organizations comprised of the Justice Initiative, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), and Syrian Archive filed a criminal complaint against the Assad regime on behalf of the victims of chemical weapons attacks. The complaint was submitted to the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor and includes evidence from the most detailed investigations completed thus far regarding the sarin attacks on Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun that took place in 2013 and 2017. This is the first action of its kind.

Earlier this year the US Department of State reported that the Assad regime continues to acquire components for chemical weapons (and missile programs) despite the destruction of Syria’s declared production facilities and stockpiles of chemical weapons. State believes that the regime aims to reestablish its strategic weapons production capabilities. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, commented on the evidence that Syria is rebuilding its chemical weapons program: “The United States has been sanctioning front companies working for the Syrian chemical weapons program since 2013 and 2014—that would indicate ongoing attempts at procurement.” Koblentz also pointed out that the administration’s reference to a strategic program suggests that Syria may be seeking to expand its chemical weapons threat in order to deter attacks by regional rivals, namely Israel.

The report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-United Nations Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) details lessons learned from the investigation into Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in 2015-2017. The JIM’s specific mandate to identify those responsible for the use of chemical weapons was a unique undertaking, and therefore, there was great value and interest in discussing, identifying and evaluating the lessons to be learned from the experience of the JIM.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” There are also several opportunities to attend Admissions Drop-In Sessions for both the Master’s programs and the PhD programs. To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Contagion-in-Chief

“If you told me that somebody who was only testing, not wearing their mask, not distancing, and not taking every other precautionary measure tested positive,” said Dr. Saskia Popescu, a biodefense expert and alumna of GMU, “I would say: No shit, Sherlock.” Last week, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive with COVID-19. This is unsurprising given that Trump has long refused to wear a mask in most cases, and most everyone he comes in contact with are to have a coronavirus test beforehand. Despite the ongoing pandemic, Trump continues to follow an aggressive campaign schedule while openly mocking mask-wearing and social distancing practices. Ignoring the concerns of epidemiologists, the White House’s prevention plan revolved around frequent use of Abbott’s ID Now diagnostic test. This strategy disregards the fact that testing does not reduce the risk of exposure to the novel virus.

What if several of our nation’s leaders become incapacitated? At present, there is no plan. The lack of plan should such a scenario arise was identified after 9/11, but we still do not have one. Norman Orstein, a member of the Continuity of Government Commission and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out that the on 9/11 all lines of succession were based in DC, increasing vulnerability should a devastating attack be carried out in our capital. Orstein also emphasizes that “there are ambiguities concerning what happens if officials die right before an election or during the transition; and the set of constitutional provisions on succession.” For instance, the 25th Amendment provides for replacing the vice president and handling a presidential disability, but it does not have a stipulation for if both the president and the vice president are incapacitated. Finally, Orstein underscores the uncertainty around an election should a candidate perish in October. For the upcoming election, ballots are already printed and more than 1 million people have already cast their votes. If the election went forward after such a misfortune, what would electors do?

In terms of national security, the Pentagon immediately assuaged any fears the Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis could present an imminent threat.  Jonathon Hoffman, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, announced that there was “no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces.” Regardless, Trump’s diagnosis exhibits the challenge for leaders charged with protecting the US from an array of foreign and domestic threats. There are mechanisms created to handle instability should a president suffer harm or injury, according to several current and former national security officials. Yet, John Gans, a former Pentagon speechwriter and author, noted that Trump’s actions while in office may increase the risk of a “total breakdown in decision making in government.” When a president falls ill, there is the potential for security implications, but in this case, security concerns are partly predicated on if Trump’s condition deteriorates. Eric Brewer, a former NSC official during the Trump and Obama administrations, stated that he does not anticipate “any major shifts in either how our national security apparatus operates or the actions of our adversaries” so long as Trump’s symptoms remains mild. On the other hand, Samantha Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst and former NSC official during the Obama administration, considers the situation to be significantly more urgent. Vinograd called trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis a “worst-case scenario from a national security perspective,” because it could “cripple the US government” as we await test results for many others in government.

The intelligence community will now closely monitor adversaries in case foreign foes seize on this period of uncertainty in the White House. According to Norman Roule, a former senior intelligence official, the intelligence community will conduct analysis and multi-source data collection regarding “decision making, military activity, as well as movements of personnel and resources that would facilitate operations against us,” particularly for the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and terrorist groups.

OPCW Confirms Use of Novichok Agent to Poison Alexei Navalny

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that a Novichok agent was used to poison Alexei Navalny. OPCW-designated laboratories confirmed that the biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics to toxic chemicals belonging to schedules 1.A.14 and 1.A.15, which were added to the CWC late last year. The OPCW also responded to a request from Russia to dispatch experts from the Technical Secretariat to the Russian Federation to cooperate with Russian experts. OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias responded to this request by assuring Russian Federation authorities that the Technical Secretariat is “ready to provide the requested expertise and that a team of experts could be deployed on short notice.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Stefano Costanzi, Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University, are proponents of revising the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to better restrict the use of Novichok nerve agents as weapons. After the use of Novichok in Salisbury in March 2018 in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, Koblentz and Costanzi argued that amending schedules to include Novichok agents would significantly strengthen the CWC. Earlier this year, the pair of experts again advocated updating the CWC, citing the 2018 poisonings of Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess in the UK, who happened upon a discarded perfume bottle containing Novichok. Sturgess, who sprayed herself to sample the fragrance, became the only fatality from a chemical weapons agent used in the UK. In regard to the recent attack on Navalny, Koblentz pointed out that the specific agent was most likely A-262, or its analog, given that it was not among the agents added to last year’s CWC Schedule 1 update.

Public Health Champion Asks CDC Director to Expose White House & Orchestrate His Own Firing

William Foege, a former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requested that Robert Redfield, the current Director of the CDC, expose the failed US response to the COVID-19 pandemic and calls on Redfield to arrange his own dismissal. Foege’s letter to Redfield urges him to “acknowledge the tragedy of responding poorly, apologize for what has happened and your role in acquiescing, set a course for how CDC would now lead the country if there was no political interference, give them the ability to report such interference to a neutral ombudsman, and assure them that you will defense their attempts to save this country.”

CDC Updates Guidance: COVID-19 Can Spread Via Airborne Transmission

After much discord, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added information about airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the novel virus that causes COVID-19. At present, the CDC site states that airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus is occurring, but that available data indicate that transmission via close contact with an infected person is much more common. This week, a letter in Science opened with: “There is overwhelming evidence that inhalation of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) represents a major transmission route for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).” This letter highlights the urgent need to “harmonize discussions about modes of virus transmission across disciplines to ensure the most effective control strategies and provide clear and consistent guidance to the public.”

Novel Orthopoxvirus Infections in Alaska: “Alaskapox”

Near Fairbanks, Alaska, there have been two cases of infection with a newly discovered Orthopoxvirus (OPXV) virus, dubbed “Alaskapox.” The first case occurred in July 2015 when a woman developed a small ulceration and presented with symptoms of fever and fatigue. This August, the second case arose in another woman who experienced similar symptoms. At present, the potential public health impact of the new OPXV is limited and there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission; however, the animal-to-human transmission route is unclear. A 2019 study of the phylogeny and genomics of Alaskapox suggested that the Alaska isolate of the virus shares a common ancestor with Old World OPXVs and diverged from New World OPXVs.

Commentary – Agri-Pulse’s Harvesting Perspectives: Agriculture and Food Policy Summit

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

“We never could have imagined how the critical connections between food security and national security would be generating headlines when we first planned this Summit in 2019.”

– Sara Wyant, Agri-Pulse Editor and Founder

This virtual 2020 Ag & Food Policy Summit highlighted the links between food security and national security. We are reminded of Alfred Henry Lewis’s words, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” This might be new information for some, but our intelligence community is well aware. To set the stage here, an issue in agricultural security is the misunderstanding of the term “food security” as food insecurity, and all definitions should include securing the food supply. Food security is national security. Food insecurity – resulting from a pandemic, a contaminated supply chain, an intentional biological attack, or an animal disease outbreak – can lead to national instability. Imagine the horror if an additional food supply problem arose while much of the US was panic buying groceries in March 2020. Sheltering-in-place is only possible if citizens have enough safe food with which to hunker down.

This event consisted of topics in food trade, farming practices, agricultural technology, biosecurity, food contamination, and national stability. Kip Tom, US Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, was the opening presenter. He led by saying that food insecurity can lead to civil unrest. Political conflict in food insecure countries is, unfortunately, very common. When the US intervenes with food aid in other countries, it is for the purpose of creating stability, but it is not simply for altruism. Early on in COVID-19, several industries were forced to shut down, creating food insecurity issues in many nations. Tom reminded the audience about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), which include goals to reduce hunger. He then explained that the European Union’s agroecology plan is an “ideological indulgence” for rich countries since some agroecology practices include manual labor instead of high production machinery. The methods of the EU (using agroecology and highly sustainable practices) are not as highly mechanized or efficient as implemented in the US. These practices could take years to implement, but could lead to local sustainable food supplies. Producing less food (and less efficiently) than the US is what seemed to be condemned here. Perhaps this is just our tendency as Americans to always want “bigger, more, faster.”

Tom suggested that the use of CRISPR, hybrid seeds, and similar technologies are the only path forward and he disparaged the EU for diverging. Helping farmers become more productive through innovation and technology, he insisted again, is the only way forward. Tom called upon the need for political will to uphold the environmental, social, and economic pillars of stability. William “Kip” Ward, a Retired US Army General who served as Commander of the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM), is also concerned about stability. Stability is a key factor for the security of a nation. Creating stability always includes the food system, so unrest due to a lack of food security can lead to leadership instability. He explained that the national security of the US benefits when other nations are fed. 

As politics are certainly involved, Sonny Purdue, the Secretary of Agriculture, asserted the political side of trade and that feeding people requires technology and innovation. His statements seemed to echo Tom’s in that implementing agroecology (as in the EU and Africa) creates a national security risk to the US. Would US influence be diminished if these nations have food trade based on systems that the US is not using? Ted McKinney, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, remarked that having productive agriculture is important. He stated that our “Innovation Agenda” embraces technology, but it is being rejected by some countries and that the EU has “misguided” Africa with their ideas. It was implied that that there will be trade implications if other countries do not grow food at sufficient rate. My takeaway from this was that a slow rate of growth toward stability and sustainability in some countries might be too slow for an impatient US. If countries are growing just what they need, they will need to import less. Right now, the US produces more food than we need, putting us in a good trade position.

The US, and the world, needs the diversity of small and mid-sized farms, as well as major corporations. The current US paradigm of farm monocropping can be seen as a national security risk to some people. Creating huge farms of just one crop is “not natural.” A lack of biodiversity is not congruent with a healthy ecosystem, and McKinney’s opinion is that diverse American farms are an insurance policy. But McKinney also stated that we use less insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides when we use GMO seeds. While this might be technically true, Chef José Andrés, Founder of World Central Kitchen, might disagree.

Andres noted that patented seeds are a risk to the American people. If small farms cannot grow food for their local communities, especially after a major disaster, then they are not truly resilient. Natural seeds should be accessible to small farmers, because patented GMO seeds are costly. Having only patented seeds available causes the control of food production to be in the hands of just a few corporations. Andrés’ example is that the US primarily grows five crops, so we are at risk of an incident (intentional or natural) that compromises our ability to feed the population, let alone trade with the rest of the world. Corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and hay seem to be what the US specializes in. His comments bring to mind the government’s suggested Victory Gardens of 1917 and 1942. During WWI and WWII, US citizens were encouraged to plant food as “war gardens” and “food gardens for defense.” This reduced pressure on the food supply.

Andrés went on to describe the challenges of the food boxes provided by the USDA in response to COVID-19. Andres was dismayed at the long lines and empty food banks. The chef said that when people are in need, they need food and water immediately.  Having US citizens wait in line for food, while some food was being destroyed (milk), was the result of inefficient delivery systems. Andres encouraged creativity, such as accepting SNAP subsidies at local restaurants (using local food), which could alleviate many supply chain issues.

The chef then stated his main concern that “at any moment, we could experience a terror attack on the American food supply.” Mike Conaway, a ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture, had concerns with possible contamination of the food supply, too. He stated that the supply chain worked well during COVID-19 early on. People could get food, even if they had to buy items that they did not prefer or had to wait in long lines to get groceries. We need to maintain a secure supply chain. Conaway said that the US needs to consider our food security interests and rank them at the same level as our military defense interests and spending.

In the panel “Is the US food supply really secure? A closer look at the biggest challenges in agriculture biosecurity at home and abroad,” Everett Hoekstra, President of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, reminded the audience that animal health and human health are intertwined, especially regarding the protein supply on which humans depend. Dr. Liz Wagstrom, the Chief Veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council, reflected on biosecurity gaps. These gaps are on farms as well as at international borders and places in between. Considering that some diseases can cause severe economic and trade impacts, farms need to be ready for diseases like African Swine Fever. Another panelist, Dr. Alan Rudolph, Vice President for Research at Colorado State University, suggested using biosurveillance systems and a One Health approach to ecosystem science. We need One Health solutions for resiliency to future outbreaks as we rebuild our infrastructure after COVID-19.

Securing America’s farms and food systems will pave the way to viable strategies for food production beyond today’s systems. Defending the food supply will include supporting international systems. The world’s projected population growth will impact land use as people cause changes in land that affect whole ecosystems. Food security also includes supporting indigenous people’s right to eat and regulating the illegal wildlife trade. Considering the root causes of certain novel emerging infectious disease can inform improvements for the American food system.  For now, the focus should be on designing secure systems, ones that consider how even the smallest livestock – honeybees – supports an increasing population’s demand for protein.  In the biodefense of food, a wholistic bipartisan policy is needed if we want to sustain a stable world where we collaborate with nature and science. And where we can always have enough to eat.



Pandora Report: 10.2.2020

Happy Spooktober! To kick off the month of fright, we are covering anti-science extremism, current threats to our homeland, and human exposure incidents to pathogens and toxins among our neighbors to the north. Also, this week we are featuring a new student writer, Sally Huang! Sally is a new student in our Biodefense PhD Program with a background in biomedical science and science policy and her scholarly interests include CBRN/WMD, global health, and biosurveillance.

BREAKING: President Donald Trump & First Lady Melania Trump Test Positive for COVID-19

Hours after proclaiming that “the end of the pandemic is in sight,” this morning, POTUS took to Twitter to reveal that he and FLOTUS have both tested positive for COVID-19. Both will quarantine in the White House for unspecified period of time.

Commentary – Event: Building Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience to Confront Future Pandemics

Sally Huang, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights from the Building Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience to Confront Future Pandemics event, a virtual meeting hosted by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. The meeting brought together members of the legislative and scientific community for a virtual discussion on the need to increase and optimize resource investments to promote changes in US policy and strengthen national pandemic preparedness and response. Even as the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the various panelists unanimously acknowledged that the world will most likely face future pandemics. After having adapted to telework, decision-makers are determined to enhance and enact new policies and guidelines to better position the nation to effectively respond to future infectious disease threats. Areas requiring the nation’s attention were addressed in three separate panel discussions; emerging biological threats and innovative technology for biodefense, emerging biological risks, and the future of biodefense. Read Huang’s article here.

Commentary – Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center: Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office by DeeDee

DeeDee Bowers. A Biodefense MS student, summarizes a webinar about the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD). The DHS CWMD Office was created to coordinate federal efforts to plan, detect, and protect against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. DHS CWMD was founded on the motto “100% focus, 0% margin of error.” Colonel Aeschleman pointed out that our enemies only have to be right once to have a devastating effect while CWMD protective measures must be constantly effective. It is with this mindset that the DHS CWMD Office set up a list of goals to achieve in Fiscal Years 2020-2024. Read Bowers’ summary here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” There are also several opportunities to attend Admissions Drop-In Sessions for both the Master’s programs and the PhD programs. To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

2019 Annual Report of the Federal Select Agent Program

The 2019 Annual Report of the Federal Select Agent Program, the fifth report of its kind, was just released to “provide the American public with insight into the regulatory activities of the program.” The Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) is a program that regulates the possession, use, and transfer of biological select agents and toxins and it is jointly managed by the Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agriculture Select Agent Services (AgSAS) under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Agriculture Select Agent Services (APHIS) at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The report précises program data regarding the numbers and types of registered entities; performed security risk assessments; the number of conducted inspections; key observations about inspection findings and regulatory compliance; reports thefts, losses, or release incidents; and publications and outreach activities. Read the full report here.

Anti-Science Extremism in America: Escalating and Globalizing

A new pre-proof editorial published in Microbes and Infection by Dr. Peter Hotez, an internationally-recognized physician-scientist in neglected tropical diseases and vaccine development, discusses the growing trend of anti-science extremism in the US. Over the last five years, there has been a steep rise in anti-science rhetoric within the US, especially from the political far right. Most of it focuses on vaccines and, of late, anti-COVID-19 prevention approaches. Vaccine coverage has declined in much of the country, which spurred an uptick in measles outbreaks in 2019. In COVID-19, the US-based anti-science movement has begun to globalize, establishing surprising associations with extremist groups and creating the potential for catastrophic consequences to global public health. A new anti-science triumvirate has developed that consists of far-right groups in the US and Germany, and amplification from Russian media.

Hold Russia Accountable for Latest Chemical Weapons Attack

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Andrea Stricker, a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, support the call for Russia to be held accountable for violating human rights and the rule of law. This is in response to the Novichok poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist. Navalny himself is demanding that the Russian government turn over the clothing he was wearing the day he was poisoned, which are key articles of evidence. Koblentz and Stricker emphasize that Washington and its allies should impose meaningful sanctions on Moscow in order to uphold long-standing international norms and laws against the use of chemical weapons.

FBI: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), issued a Statement Before the House Homeland Security Committee about the current worldwide threats to the US. As a result of the opportunities presented to hostile foreign actors, violent extremists, and opportunistic criminal elements in COVID-19, the FBI workforce now faces unique and unprecedented challenges. Threats include the spread of terrorist ideology via social media, cyber intrusions and state-sponsored economic espionage, malign foreign influence and interference, active shooters and other violent criminals, opioid trafficking and abuse, hate crimes, human trafficking, and crimes against children. These threats are challenging efforts in counterterrorism, election security, lawful access, information and intellectual property, and cybersecurity.

The Human Cost of the Trump Pandemic Response? More Than 100,000 Unnecessary Deaths.

Since World War II, no American president has shown greater disdain for science—or more lack of awareness of its likely costs.” That statement was written in a 2018 article, long before the thousands of American lives lost and the millions of livelihoods destroyed as a result of COVID-19 and the botched pandemic response. Now, there have been over 205,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US, total federal outlays exceed $3 trillion, and over 14 million people are out of work. Nations such as Canada, Japan, and Germany have suffered far lower death rates thanks to their response decisions and actions.  Though the US accounts for only 4% of the global population, it leads the globe in confirmed COVID-19 cases and has suffered 21% of the total deaths in the world.

New Document Reveals Scope and Structure of Operation Warp Speed and Underscores Vast Military Involvement

Operation Warp Speed (OWS) is a $10 billion initiative established to accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. OWS is touted as a public health-focused endeavor, yet transparency about it is lacking. STAT obtained an organization chart that reveals OWS to be a “highly structured organization in which military personnel vastly outnumber civilian scientists.” According to the chart, about 60 military officials are part of the leadership of OWS, and many have never worked in health care or vaccine development. Additionally, the chart reveals which agencies are not key components of OWS leadership – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) seem to be at the helm.

OPCAST Ad-Hoc Pandemic Response Group

OPCAST is a subgroup of former members of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Members include John P. Holdren, Christine Cassel, Christopher Chyba, Susan L. Graham, Eric S. Lander, Richard C. Levin, Ed Penhoet, William Press, Maxine Savitz, and Harold Varmus. OPCAST provides reports and recommendations regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Recent outputs include Recommendations for the National Strategic Pandemic-Response Stockpile, Epidemiological Modeling Needs New, Coherent, Federal Support for the Post-COVID-19 Era, and Testing for the Pathogen During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Future Ones.

Surveillance of Laboratory Exposures to Human Pathogens and Toxins, Canada 2019

In Canada, the Human Pathogens Act and the Human Pathogens and Toxins Regulations mandates laboratory incident reporting to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Laboratory Incident Notification Canada (LINC) surveillance system. This analysis objective describes laboratory incidents involving exposures that occurred in Canada during 2019 and individuals affected in these incidents. In 2019, there were 60 reported exposure incidents involving 86 individuals. Most exposure incidents involved microbiology activities (65%) and/or were reported by the academic sector (37%); the public health sector had the largest proportion of exposure incidents while the private sector had the lowest. In regard to those exposed, over one-third of had 0–5 years of laboratory experience and were hospital technicians or technologists. Inhalation was the most common route of exposure (62%) and human interaction (24%) was the most cited cause. This article highlights the importance of biosafety and biosecurity in laboratory settings in order to prevent accidents that could harm workers and enter into the general population.

Keep Your Mask On: Why a Coronavirus Vaccine Won’t Be the Panacea Many Hope For.

The development and dissemination of a COVID-19 vaccine has become the savior that society is relying on in order to return to some semblance of normal life. Though vaccines save lives from infectious diseases and have, in some cases, resulted in eradication of an infection such as smallpox, it cannot be our only defense against the novel coronavirus. A vaccine requires great expense and usually takes several years to become widely available. Even when the COVID-19 vaccine comes to fruition, many will either be unable to take it or struggle to access it. Thus, we need to continue to practice low-tech prevention measures like wearing a mask. In the words of Robert Redfield, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “If I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will.”

Commentary – Event: Building Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience to Confront Future Pandemics

By Sally Huang, Biodefense PhD Student

With the current COVID-19 pandemic revealing major gaps in national readiness, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense brought together members of the legislative and scientific community for a virtual discussion on the need to increase and optimize resource investments to promote changes in US policy and strengthen national pandemic preparedness and response. Even as the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the various panelists unanimously acknowledged that the world will most likely face future pandemics. After having adapted to telework, decisionmakers are determined to enhance and enact new policies and guidelines to better position the nation to effectively respond to future infectious disease threats. Areas requiring the nation’s attention were addressed in three separate panel discussions; emerging biological threats and innovative technology for biodefense, emerging biological risks, and the future of biodefense. The recording of the virtual discussion held by the Commission, “The Biological Event Horizon: No Return or Total Resilience,” can be found here.

Representatives Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) discussed the responsibility the US has to its people to take advantage of lessons learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic to integrate into pandemic preparedness and response policies. After all, as much as governments monitor indicators of possible biological attack, there is no set method to predict or foretell events of Mother Nature, “the world’s worst bioterrorist” and how it may further increase infectious disease threats. The US, operating from a privileged position as a world power, had a heightened belief of preparedness partly brought on by availability of advanced biotechnologies, but quickly realized the scope of their unpreparedness as private and public sectors were overwhelmed. The shock that resulted from COVID-19 demonstrates that the government not only has to invest meaningfully in CBRN programs, but also speaks to the need to translate scientific research into solutions in order to be well-equipped. For example, expanding and improving management of the Strategic National Stockpile and establishing a national forecasting system of infectious diseases analogous to the National Weather Service. This also includes revamping trainings and imparting institutions with flexible working styles in recognition that teleworking and digital platforms are transforming the working landscape. This is much needed for government institutions as COVID-19 caused a significant interruption in government operations and its ability to provide services to the people. More importantly, with the November election approaching, the nation requires clear leadership from the White House during this critical time to steer pandemic and biodefense progress in the right direction.

These policy additions and enhancements are also backed by advice given by experts, including Jaime Yassif, PhD, Sohini Ramachandran, PhD, and Nita Madhav, MSPH, about emerging biological risks. There is an evident need to close the gap between science and policy to enrich pandemic preparedness and foster a culture of cooperation, coordination, and resilience. As the panelists mention, numbers of infectious diseases will increase over time, meaning that complex contagion will inevitably become a reality the US and international community have to battle with. Thus, this further highlights the urgent need to fund interdisciplinary research to enhance analytical tools for infectious disease modeling and sheds light on the national forecasting suggestion brought up by the first set of panelists to better coordinate infectious disease analytics and information more efficiently. Proactive preparedness will help ensure proactive and effective reaction.

That being said, all the more reason to pay attention and invest strategically in the future of biodefense. Private and public sectors need to be effectively incorporated into a national strategy in order to improve foundational capabilities and compensate for the noticeable gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes enhancing and providing support to the supply chain, a critical building block for addressing America’s material needs. Additionally, analytic and scientific models should account for modern globalization trends and climate change effects to heighten awareness and response. The recent wildfires spreading across California, Oregon, and Washington serve as an example where unpredictable events have the potential to set up ideal conditions for further disease transmission. Not to mention, natural events cause ecological shifts that also contribute to a changed infectious disease landscape. Decisionmakers have no doubt that this feat will require a strong united front to address these concerns.

The recommendations raised during this virtual discussion led to congressional members underscoring the significance of the Apollo Project for Biodefense. Noted as a vital step to building the nation’s resilience, this initiative will examine the nation’s track record of dealing with infectious diseases, and assess how to better invest and coordinate science and technology efforts and innovation. Extending the ambitions, values, and characteristics of the original Apollo mission,—with the goal of landing the first humans on the moon, to the current COVID-19 pandemic—the legislative and scientific community are hopeful that the bipartisan Apollo Project for Biodefense will champion public and private sector partnership, and galvanize public support to achieve prevention and mitigation of infectious disease threats. Legislative and scientific communities are optimistic that this initiative will push the country in the right direction to better understand, prepare for, and anticipate future pandemics.

This three-paneled virtual discussion echoes the notion that positive policy change in the realm of infectious diseases is a dynamic and all-inclusive process in which various sectors have to participate and cooperate, and integrate expert advice with legislative detail to properly enact long-term change. Even from a virtual distance, it is clear that members of the legislative and scientific community are ready to take collaborative action to ensure that the world doesn’t come to another standstill in the face of future pandemics. As the country continues to struggle and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the right policies governed by suitable leadership will determine a nation’s future plan, response, and resilience towards infectious diseases. While the Apollo Project for Biodefense emphasizes a united and hopeful front, the panelists are aware that a great deal of coordination is still required before strategies can be translated into action. There will have to be steadfast commitment from various sectors and stakeholders in order to foster preparedness, resilience, and response during this opportune window of time.

Commentary – Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center: Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

By DeeDee Bowers, Biodefense MS Student

The Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center (HDIAC) hosted a webinar presented by Colonel Jeremiah Aeschleman, US Army, on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD). President Trump signed into law the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 2018 giving rise to the DHS CWMD office. The DHS CWMD Office was created to coordinate federal efforts to plan, detect, and protect against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. DHS CWMD was founded on the motto “100% focus, 0% margin of error.” As Colonel Aeschleman pointed out, our enemies only have to be right once to have a devastating effect while CWMD protective measures must be constantly effective. It is with this mindset that the DHS CWMD Office set up a list of goals to achieve in Fiscal Years 2020-2024, including other entities such as WMD risk assessment offices and projects like Securing the Cities with which they collaborate. The following are some of the goals set by DHS CWMD.

The first goal is to “anticipate, identify, and access current and emerging WMD threats.” This goal is focused on the collection of intelligence from partners such as the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), the Radiation and Nuclear Terrorism Risk Assessment (RNTRA), the Biological Terrorism Risk Assessment (BTRA), and the Chemical Terrorism Risk Assessment (CTRA). The work done with the intelligence community is ad hoc.

The second goal for DHS CWMD presented by Colonel Aeschleman is to “strengthen detection and disruption of CBRN threats to the homeland.” This goal will be achieved in partnership with programs such as Securing the Cities (STC), BioWatch, Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), Mobile Detection Deployment Program (MDDP), and the National Targeting Center (NTC). These partnerships extend to state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments. SLTT partnerships help with operations such as large-scale radiological detection that directly communicate with local law enforcement for immediate notification and response in the affected areas. SLTT partnerships also allow for the CWMD Office to have a greater effect while still abiding by the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA). US Northern Command defines PCA as prohibiting the armed forces “from performing domestic law enforcement activities [such as] direct participation in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.” By working with SLTT governments, the federal government trains personnel and provides equipment for the SLTT entities to monitor threats. The DHS CWMD office provides MX908 devices to law enforcement agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The MX908 is a durable and portable high-pressure mass spectrometer for agencies such as CBP to use in the field to detect dangerous and life-threatening chemicals (e.g. Fentanyl). Lastly, the partnership with NTC provides information concerning ongoing behaviors using special algorithms. These algorithms determine baseline behaviors, human or otherwise, in order to monitor the environment and situational climates in order to recognize when an abnormal event is underway. When an abnormal event occurs, the appropriate entity or personnel is notified to respond.

The last goal of DHS CWMD highlighted by Colonel Aeschleman was to “synchronize homeland counter-WMD and health-security planning and execution.” This goal includes the partnerships with the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA). The GNDA is designed as a deterrent to let enemies know the United States’ borders possess radiation monitoring and, if caught with prohibited radiological devices, there will be consequences. With the aforementioned goals followed by the DHS CWMD Office, they have had major accomplishments in 2020.

Despite being a new DHS office, in 2020, they have implemented enhanced screening at 15 airports for COVID-19 as well as worked with NBIC on early assessments of COVID-19. Programs such as the STC expanded to six new cities bringing the total up to 13 major cities with new technologies for CBRN detection. In the future, they intend on holding an exercise to place all mission essential tasks in good standing with quality control standards. Lastly, DHS CWMD has published its Countering Unmanned Systems Armed with WMD (CUS-WMD) Strategy. The publication is a framework to detect and strategize prevention of hostile actors possessing agricultural drones armed with CBRN weapons for easy dissemination. While the DHS CWMD office appears to place their talents in counterterrorism, they realize these may not be the only threats. Counterterrorism is threaded within the fabric of CWMD; however, they also focus on terrorist-styled attacks and nation state threats to protect the American people.

Pandora Report: 9.25.2020

Happy fall y’all! The first days of autumn have been eventful with the ongoing pandemic and the interception of ricin-laced letters. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response virtually met for the first time and laid out their plans for investigating how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic. Letters laced with ricin were intercepted in Texas and before reaching the White House, and a suspect has been charged. In wonderful news, our own Dr. Saskia Popescu was named as one of the 50 experts to trust and follow in a pandemic! Also, Stevie Kiesel shares her assessment of the Secret Service’s annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

Stevie Kiesel, a PhD Student in Biodefense, shares her assessment of the US Secret Service annual reporting on mass attacks in public spaces. Just last year, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. These annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Schar School Job Talk: Careers in Policy and Security

Please join the Schar School at a virtual job talk for prospective students! Panelists will provide insight on how a graduate degree from the Schar School can benefit your career in policy and security. Panelists include Dr. Saskia Popescu, 2019 graduate of the Schar School’s PhD in Biodefense program, a nationally recognized expert in hospital-based infection prevention, and a Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School; Kathleen Lackey, Staff Officer with the Department of Defense and a 2018 graduate of the Schar School’s MA in International Security; Larry Hanauer, Vice President for Policy at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA); and Curt Goucher, Senior Manager of Talent Management and Strategy with the Intelligence and Homeland Security Division of General Dynamics Information Technology. Click here to register.

Scientists Are Working on Vaccines That Spread Like a Disease. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A growing subset of scientists think that the self-propagating properties of a virus could be exploited and used to spread immunity to infection. In theory, conferring immunity through an animal population could lower the chance of a zoonotic spillover; however, there are serious risks related to self-spreading vaccines. Self-spreading vaccines are “genetically engineered viruses designed to move through populations in the same way as infectious diseases, but rather than causing disease, they confer protection.” Dr. Fillipa Lentzos and Dr. Guy Reeves outline some of these risks in their recent article featured in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The primary security concern is the dual-use potential; these self-spreading vaccines could be used as a biological weapon. Though the Biological Weapons Convention bans biological weapons, it lacks any formal measures to ensure compliance. Given the degradation of the norm against chemical weapons, as evidenced by the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny with Novichok, the international community cannot withstand a similar weakening of the norm against biological weapons. The authors encourage “early, open, good-faith conversations about scientific aims and advances that cause particular dual-use concerns” in order to “make a collective decision about the technical pathways we are willing, or not willing, to take as a society.”

Ricin Letters

It was revealed last week that letters containing ricin, a poison found naturally in castor beans, were intercepted. One such letter was bound for Trump, but intercepted at an off-site mail processing facility, and others were sent to a detention facility and sheriff’s office in Texas. Mail address to the White House and other federal agencies in the DC area are irradiated and sampled for suspicious samples prior to arriving at the final destination.  The Joint Terrorism Task Force in DC is the lead on the investigation in partnership with the FBI, Secret Service, and Postal Inspection Service. An FBI statement on Twitter announced that there is “no known threat to public safety.” The investigation into all the ricin-laced letters has led to a suspect: Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier, 53, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. An affidavit in support of criminal complaint was submitted by Jonathon Preston, a Special Agent Bomb Technician with the FBI, states his support of charging Ferrier with Threatening the President of the United States. According to Preston, all seven letters contained similar language, similar material, and four of them had fingerprints matching the suspect. Ferrier also shared Twitter and Facebook posts that used language akin to that in the letters, and the email associated with those social media accounts was linked to her. Further, upon detainment by Customs and Border Patrol Officers in Buffalo on 20 September, Ferrier made statements that she was “wanted by the FBI for the ricin letters.” Ferrier’s detention hearing is scheduled for 28 September.

The Independent Panel Set to Establish the Facts of How and Why COVID-19 Became a Global Pandemic

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response is tasked with providing an evidence-based path for the future to effectively address health threats. The Independent Panel intends to establish the facts of how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic and to generate recommendations for “safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats.” The Independent Panel held its first meeting (virtually) on 17 September and it will conduct an impartial, independent and comprehensive review of the response to COVID-19. In the first meeting, members discussed the Terms of Reference to ensure that the Panel works “openly and transparently” and seeks the “best possible advice, experience, and knowledge.” The thematic areas for the program of work include the review of the pandemic from its initial phase and the analysis of broader societal and economic impacts. Scheduled reporting includes a briefing to the WHO Executive Board at its session scheduled 5-6 October, a progress report to the resumed 73rd World Health Assembly scheduled from 9-14 November, a second progress report to the WHO Executive Board scheduled from 18-26 January 2021, and then the Panel will then report to the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021.

Healthcare Workers Make Up 1 in 7 Reported Coronavirus Infections Globally

One in seven COVID-19 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a healthcare worker. In some countries, that proportion is as high as one in three. These numbers are disproportionately high compared with the numbers of healthcare workers, which account for about 3% of the population in most countries. Two factors contributing to these elevated rates are the greater rates of testing for healthcare workers as frontline responders in a pandemic and the high-risk nature of working in healthcare. A study published this summer found that the risk of infection for healthcare workers was about three times greater than the risk for the general community. The WHO did clarify that the data did not provide clear insight into whether healthcare workers were infected in clinical settings or at home.

50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic

A list of the 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic includes Dr. Saskia Popescu, graduate of the Biodefense PhD Program and Term Assistant Professor for the Program! Dr. Popescu is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and Biostats. She is an epidemiologist and hospital infection preventionist in Arizona, a hotspot for the virus. To keep up with Dr. Popescu’s insights on the pandemic, follow her on Twitter @SaskiaPopescu.    

COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted Actions

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congressional Committees regarding federal actions to support public health, individuals, and the economy in COVID-19 evaluates federal actions to the pandemic. The report identified several issues in need of attention by Congress and the administration, including: the medical supply chain is unable to prevent shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies; there is a lack of clarity about the federal government’s plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine; COVID-19 data reveal that there is a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among minority groups and those data contain gaps; and the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service lack updated information on the number of eligible recipients who have not received an economic impact payment. Beyond the long list of areas in need of improvement, the report lays out 16 recommendations for executive action, such as better developing and communicating plans that outline the specific actions that the federal government intends to take to help alleviate medical supply gaps necessary to respond to the remainder of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

In Response: Yan et al Preprint

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published a response to the preprint report, Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route, by Li-Meng Yan, Shu Kang, Jie Guan, and Shanchang Hu. The report in question provides a theory about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, but, according to the Center for Health Security, the authors failed to provide accurate or supportive evidence to back up their claim. In short, the refuted report, which is not peer-reviewed, states that “SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus” and that “evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 should be a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.” The Center for Health Security response thoroughly details the errors in the report and provides accurate information about each topic.

Lists of Chemical Warfare Agents and Precursors: Structural Annotation and Chemical Fingerprint Analysis

A recent publication by Stefano Costanzi, Charlotte Slavick, Brent Hutchinson, Gregory Koblentz (GMU Biodefense Program Director), and Richard Cupitt (GMU Adjunct Professor) provides “curated and structurally annotated chemical weapons (CW) control lists from three key international nonproliferation frameworks: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Australia Group (AG), and the Wassenaar Arrangement.” These lists were constructed to facilitate communication between scientific advisors and policymakers in chemical weapons nonproliferation. They are also aimed at enabling the work of chemists and cheminformaticians working on CW nonproliferation. The tables include 2D structural images, downloadable 2D structures, and links to NCBI’s PubChem and NIST’s Chemistry WebBook cards that offer quick access to physicochemical, analytical chemistry, and toxicological information. The article examines a discrepancy in a CW control list covering the defoliant Agent Orange and suggests a solution to address it, as well as the results of chemical fingerprinting analyses. The tables for the curated lists of chemicals are available here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

Locations of Mass Attacks in Public Spaces in the United States, 2019

In 2019, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed 200,000 Americans, this death toll may seem to pale in comparison. However, much like with COVID-19, fairly simple measures could have a significant effect on the death toll. This article reviews recent US Secret Service assessments of mass casualty attacks in public spaces, discusses recommended measures to prevent some attacks, and suggests improvements for future reports.

Since 2017, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center published an annual report on mass attacks carried out in public or semi-public spaces (2017 report, 2018 report, 2019 report). The Secret Service defines a mass attack as an incident “in which three or more persons, not including the perpetrator, were harmed during a targeted attack in a public or semi-public space.” 2017 saw the highest numbers of deaths and injuries from 28 total mass attacks (147 deaths and 700 injuries). The October 1 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival drew these numbers sharply upward – in that incident alone, 58 were killed and 546 were injured. Additionally, two shooting incidents and two vehicle-ramming incidents in that year caused higher casualties than average for these types of attacks. In contrast, 2018 saw 27 mass attacks with 91 deaths and 107 injuries, and 2018 saw 34 mass attacks with 108 deaths and 178 injuries. In both of these years, the incidents with the highest numbers of casualties involved mass shootings. Figure 1 below shows weapons types used by year.

Figure 1: Breakdown of Weapons Types for 2017, 2018, and 2019

These reports identify important similarities among the attackers, as well as potential indicators that an attack may have been forthcoming. For example, each report highlights how these attacks were very often preceded by a significant stressful event in the attacker’s life, such as divorce, death in the family, unemployment, and/or financial hardship. Additionally, many attackers struggled with substance abuse and/or mental health conditions. Each report found that a majority of attackers elicited concern from others in their life, to the extent that these people felt concerned for their own or others’ safety. Many attackers also had some sort of criminal record; a history of domestic violence was fairly common.

This personalized analysis of the attackers leads to several actionable conclusions to potentially reduce the occurrence of and casualties associated with mass attacks in public spaces. The latest report offers five recommendations:

  1. Establish threat assessment programs for commonly targeted areas, such as schools and workplaces
  2. Enforce existing firearms laws – the majority of mass attacks in the US are carried out with illegally owned firearms
  3. Provide crisis intervention, drug treatment, and mental health treatment
  4. Recognize the risk of crime and violence, based on criminal histories (particularly violent criminal histories)
  5. Encourage reporting of concerning behavior

While these recommendations would likely have some impact, many focus entirely on the individual’s personal situation (recent hardships, stressors, and issues with drugs and mental health) and fail to incorporate the role that extremist ideology can play in many of these attacks. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the “evolving and persistent terrorism threat to the homeland,” in which “the greatest threat we face in the homeland emanates from self-radicalized lone actors, of any ideology, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” This depiction is in line with many other threat assessments conducted in recent years.

The 2019 report begins to tackle the issue of ideology, highlighting the rising threat of misogynistic extremism such as the incel movement. However, no other ideologies are discussed here. Also, in this section, the report describes the hyperconnected nature of the internet’s potential to radicalize, allowing “those with fringe or extremist ideologies to converge and promote their beliefs to a wider audience.” The report specifically calls out the message board 8kun as a hub for this type of content, particularly among the far right. Simply mentioning incel ideology without discussing white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of extremism, and just mentioning 8kun while saying nothing about Telegram, BitChute, and the many other dark corners of the internet where extremists congregate, makes this section seem woefully incomplete, more of a suggestion of areas for future research than an assessment informed by the 34 mass attacks carried out that year.

These annual assessments could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. In particular, clearing up definitional ambiguity around ideological affiliations could provide much needed clarity going forward. Assessing the importance of ideology for each attack is composed of two steps: (1) determining if the perpetrator had any history of association with extremist ideologies and (2) determining whether the extremist ideology had any impact on the attack itself. For example, the 2018 report finds that only two of 27 total attackers were motivated by an ideology: “one was motivated by anti-abortion beliefs while the other was motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs.” But the report also notes that

[W]hile only two of the attackers were primarily motivated by an ideology, nearly one-third of the attackers appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence. Often the attackers’ beliefs were multifaceted and touched on a range of issues, including white supremacy, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, sovereign citizens, animal rights, and the incel movement.

The nature of extremism today is multidimensional, decentralized, and highly connected; one attacker may be active in many online extremist communities, including those that glorify mass shooters and seek to gain the next “high score” in terms of fatalities when they conduct their own attacks. For future reports, the Secret Service should determine a methodology for identifying the attackers’ ideological affiliations, as well as the level of impact these ideologies had on the attack itself. Making this information public will provide important context to the rising threat of violent extremism in the US.

Pandora Report: 9.18.2020

Calling all budding biodefense students and professionals – the Schar School is hosting several virtual information sessions for prospective students!  To add further enticement, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi, an electrophysiologist AND neuropharmacologist, is joining the GMU Biodefense family this spring. In alarming news, dozens of drone incursions have flown over US nuclear sites by unknown operators with unknown objectives. The UN General Assembly just approved a broad resolution about the coronavirus pandemic, despite objections from the US. Also, we are welcoming a new student writer from the Biodefense MS Program, DeeDee Bowers, who is sharing her takeaways from a public convo about the future of DHS.

Commentary – Countering New Threats to the Homeland: The Future of the Department of Homeland Security

DeeDee Bowers, a Biodefense MS student, shares her takeaways from a webinar hosted by the Atlantic Council about the future of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). To achieve its objectives, DHS will have to evolve with the threat landscape. Read Bowers’ commentary here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Dozens More Mystery Drone Incursions Over US Nuclear Power Plants Revealed

Between 2015-2019, there have been at least 57 drone incursions over 24 nuclear sites in the US. Of the 57 known incidents, 49 of them were classified as “Closed Unresolved,” indicating that 85% of the drone incursions were conducted by unknown perpetrators with unknown intents. Last September, a swarm of about half a dozen large drones flew over a pressurized water reactor at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station for 80 minutes. The timespan of that incursion would be sufficient to thoroughly survey the site.

Welcome, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi!

This spring, the Schar School welcomes a new course (more to come later) with new adjunct faculty member Dr. Lauren Quattrochi! Dr. Quattrochi (aka Dr. Q) is classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuropharmacologist. Over the evolution of her career, she has worked within the biopharma industry, non-profits and for the past 4 years, in support of the government. She is currently a principal biotechnologist leading national level scientific and biosecurity initiatives within the US government. At the moment, Dr. Quattrochi serves as a technical advisor on both Hantavirus and COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing. She has led key projects within the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) on rapid vaccine preparedness, the Biomedical Research and Advanced Development Authority (BARDA) on their public-private partnerships and medical countermeasure sustainability, as well as the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) on accelerating breakthrough medical technologies from start-up biotechs. Prior to her current work, she spearheaded projects at Pfizer on drug delivery, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and metabolism for Schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Quattrochi has had the pleasure to teach STEM on infectious diseases in partnership with Brown University at the NIH, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and overseas in Greece. In her spare time, she teaches power vinyasa yoga and creates scientifically-inspired jewelry.

The Passing of an Arms Control Legend

The Pandora Report is sad to report that James F. Leonard, passed away recently at the age of 100. Ambassador Leonard was an ardent and articulate advocate for arms control and nonproliferation. As Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) from 1969-1973, Ambassador Leonard was the lead U.S. negotiator for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the first international treaty to ban an entire class of weapons. Ambassador Leonard recounted his long diplomatic career in a 1993 oral history. Following his retirement from government service, Ambassador Leonard remained actively involved in nonproliferation activities through his work with several non-government organizations. In 1989, Ambassador Leonard was a co-founder of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons at the Federation of American Scientists (now the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation). His decency and dedication to the cause of arms control will be truly missed.

Suboptimal US Response to COVID-19 Despite Robust Capabilities and Resources

Frankly, “suboptimal” is probably an understatement. Dr. Jennifer B. Nuzzo, Jessica A. Bell, and Dr.  Elizabeth E. Cameron published a Viewpoint piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about the poor response of the US to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors highlight that in September 2019, the release of the Global Health Security Index revealed several weaknesses of all countries, including the US. The Index, however, did not reveal the critical gaps in leadership that would soon lead to a failed pandemic response. The article breaks down the Index and indicator scores for the US and compares the US to other nations whose responses have been significantly stronger. Read the full article here.

Putin Borrowed a Page from Assad’s Chemical Weapon Playbook

The recent poisoning of Alexei Nalvany with a Novichok is just the latest in a series of poisonings by the Kremlin. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, draws on the history of Novichok incidents to compare Russian President Putin’s strategy to that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Like Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Putin’s use of a nerve agent to repress dissidents and critics and shamelessly violate the Chemical Weapons Convention, which explicitly bans Novichoks. Read Koblentz’s article here.

UN Assembly Approves Pandemic Resolution; US, Israel Object

On 11 September, the United Nations General Assembly approved an omnibus resolution titled “Comprehensive and coordinated response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.” The resolution calls for strengthened international cooperation and solidarity for the goals of containing, mitigating, and defeating the pandemic and its consequences using responses that are people-centered, gender-responsive, and respectful of human rights. It was adopted by a vote of 169-2, with the two votes against from the United States and Israel. The US objected to the resolution based on references to the World Health Organization (WHO), from which Trump has cut funding and intends to withdraw. Speaking of the WHO withdrawal, the administration is starting to reassign or recall the US officials working with the WHO. Additionally, the US wanted the removal of paragraphs that refer to women’s rights to “sexual and reproductive health” and to “promoting global sustainable transport.” Finally, the US opposed the any unilateral economic, financial, or trade sanctions.

The Labs Where Monsters Live

Nations are investing in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories to study dangerous pathogens and better prepare themselves for novel ones, but some scientists are worried about the potential for an accident in high-containment facilities or attacks using the creations of research. In terms of safety from accidents, laboratories must carefully select personnel, create a work culture of trust and accountability, and uphold strict safety protocols and rules. There is also debate about gain-of-function research, which could make a pathogen more dangerous by giving it new or enhanced abilities. Supporters of gain-of-function work argue that such research helps improve detection and create vaccines for future biothreats, but others worry that the risks do not outweigh the benefits. Another critical concern about BSL-4 laboratories is about who will be tasked with monitoring their activities. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, says that government oversight is crucial, but laboratory workers are the linchpins. The insider threat is the greatest security challenge, which is why US labs maintain a personnel reliability programmed designed to monitor scientists for issues like mental distress or financial distress. A worker could be radicalized by a group who encourages that individual to steal research or blackmailed by bad actor who encourages that individual to procure samples for them. Richard Ebright from Rutgers University warns that BSL-4 labs could become “tools for authoritarian governments” if there is not international transparency.

Interdisciplinary Information for Infectious Disease Response: Exercising for Improved Medical/Public Health Communication and Collaboration

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, and Dr. Nathan Myers, Associate Professor & Director of Public Administration at Indiana State University, published a paper about the importance of communication and training in relation to high consequence pathogens. They point out that recent infectious disease threats – like SARS-CoV-2 – require an increase in preparedness and response capabilities, especially in information sharing. Their policy analysis “reviews the threat that infectious diseases continue to pose to the United States, and the role that the Hospital Preparedness Program can play in countering such threats.” Based on their study, the authors provide recommendations for improved medical and public health communication and collaboration. Read the full article here.