Pandora Report: 9.4.2020

Agroterrorism: National Defense Assessment, Strategies, and Capabilities

United States Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and Auburn University published a collection of academic studies about the challenges of agroterrorism to the United States, titled Agroterrorism: National Defense Assessment, Strategies, and Capabilities. The included papers that discuss the historical threat of attacks on agriculture, contemporary challenges, US policies and capabilities, and recommendations on how to improve policies and capabilities for the future. Three of the co-authors are members of the extended GMU Biodefense family: Janet Marroquin is a current Biodefense PhD student, Douglas Lewis is graduate of the PhD program, and Henry Parker is a former adjunct professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program. Read the report here.

Review and Revision of the Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA

On 26 August, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) issued a Request for Information (RFI) for the Review and Revision of the Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA in the US Federal Register. The ASPR invites public comments on whether and how the Guidance could be updated to mitigate the risks associated with nucleic acid synthesis technologies. These technologies enable the design, modification, and creation of biological systems, and bear the potential to be misused. Due to the dual-use risks, the comment period is seeking public input on changes that would either expand or limit the following areas: Scope of the Guidance, Sequence Screening, Biosecurity Measures, Customer Screening, Minimizing Burden of the Guidance, and Technologies Subject to the Guidance. The RFI is open through noon on 25 October. Submit comments here.  

COVID-19 Cases Infographic

Statista crafted this infographic depicting the global case count of COVID-19 cases as of 30 August, which has surpassed the 25 million mark. The chart also breaks down the case count into active, recovered, and deceased.

Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released the Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of a COVID-19 Vaccine. The Preliminary Framework aims to “assist policy makers in the domestic and global health communities in planning for equitable allocation of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.” The discussion considers several issues regarding allocation of a vaccine, including how to assure access to communities of color and what criteria should be used in setting priorities for equitable allocation. Read the full draft framework here.

Security, Intelligence, and the Global Health Crisis

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a non-partisan think tank based in Canada, released an essay series about the interface between health security and national security. The publication – Security, Intelligence and the Global Health Crisis – includes pieces about disinformation in a health crisis, economic security, climate change, and more. As the world investigates the emergence of the pandemic and learns from the global response, it must also consider the role of security and intelligence institutions in protecting societies against disease outbreaks. Read the series here.

Potential Impact of Science and Technology on International Security and Disarmament

The new United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) report, Advances in Science and Technology in the Life Sciences: Implications for Biosecurity and Arms Control, summarizes several trends facilitating advances across the life sciences: immunology, neuroscience, human genetics and reproductive science, agriculture, and infectious disease. Though research and development in these fields is by and large conducted for peaceful purposes in order to benefit society, the same outputs can pose serious ethical, safety, and security concerns if they are misused. Specifically, R&D in the life sciences could contribute to new types of biological weapons with different and more deleterious effects than existing agents. In the same vein, the United Nations General Assembly released a new report, Current Developments in Science and Technology and Their Potential Impact on International Security and Disarmament Efforts, provides a comprehensive update on the innovations of the life sciences that could impact international security and disarmament efforts. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published an article about emerging technologies that present a new spectrum of threats from chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) terrorism. Koblentz names malware, synthetic biology, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, digital currency, nanotechnology, and genome editing as emerging technologies that comprise the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new era is unprecedented in its “global scope, exponential rate of innovation, and the convergence of the physical, digital, and biological worlds.”

Conversations on COVID-19: Impacts on Communities of Color

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) debuted a new resource, Conversations on COVID-19: Impacts on Communities of Color. Though much remains unknown about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, CDC data show that special populations (African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and the elderly) are bearing the brunt of infections and deaths. This new NASEM page includes conversations with experts on a variety of topics related to minority health and COVID-19 and information and resources from NASEM on issues related to health equity. View these items here.

Backlash Against CDC’s Changed Testing Guidelines

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made significant changes to its COVID-19 testing guidelines that loosened its recommendations regarding who should be tested. Due to the inconsistency of the updates with recommendations from experts, most states have rejected the new CDC guidelines and continued to encourage all exposed persons regardless of symptom onset to get tested. An open letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, and Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary of Health for the Department of Health and Human Services, expressed the concerns of the nation’s local health departments about the changes. The letter details the lack of scientific evidence to support the adjustments and the lack of transparency, and it implores these officials to revert the guidelines back to the previous version supported by the public health community.

Navalny Poisoned with Novichok

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent earlier this week. Navalny is “one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics and has investigated well-placed officials over potential instances of corruption and abuse of office.” There is a theory that Navalny may have ingested the poison through his tea; however, Novichok is not water soluble. Though a fatal dose was not successfully administered, Navalny remains in a medically induced coma. German doctors announced that he is now stable and that his life is no longer in danger. Though a Russian official stated that the country is prepared to fully exchange information pertaining to the incident, officials are also encouraging caution when discussing the poisoning and claiming that the presence of poison in Navalny’s system is “premature and unsubstantiated.” Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was interviewed about the deadly design of this nerve agent. It was pointed out that the Russians did not abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention by continuing to develop and deploy agents such as the Novichok. The Novichoks were developed in the 1970s by Soviet chemists as a weapon that could be deployed without detection. They block neurotransmitters that control the muscles, including those that control breathing. Only a tiny amount of this chemical is needed to achieve a lethal effect. The agent has been applied to a doorknob and believed to have successfully killed its victims after being absorbed through the skin.

Committee to Review Global Treaty on Health Emergencies

A Review Committee of independent experts will examine various components of the existing International Health Regulations (IHR) relating to preparedness and response in health emergencies. The IHR requires that all countries have the ability to detect, assess, report and respond to public health events, and it was last revised and signed in 2005. The Committee will advise amendments to the IHR that better prepare the world to end COVID-19 and prepare for the next pandemic.

The Emerging Neurobioeconomy: Implications for National Security

Joseph DeFranco, a recent graduate of the Biodefense MS Program, Dr. Maureen Rhemann, Visiting Scholar of the O’Neill-Pellegrino Program in Brain Science at Georgetown University, and Dr. James Giordano, Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center published an article Health Security about the emerging neurobioeconomy. The techniques and tools stemming from neuroscience and neurotechnology have spurred new programs in brain research and innovation, some of which create new security concerns. This article examines the growth of the neuroscience and neurotechnology market, discusses how the neurobioeconomy poses unique ethical and security issues for the general bioeconomy, proposes a risk assessment and mitigation approach. Read the article here.

Poll: Most Americans Believe the COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Process Is Driven by Politics, Not Science

According to a recent poll conducted by STAT and the Harris Poll, 78% of Americans worry that the COVID-19 vaccine approval process is driven more by politics than science. This statistic echoes fears that the current administration may prematurely approve a vaccine. There is growing speculation that Trump may pressure the Food and Drug Adminsitration (FDA) to approve or grant Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 prior to sufficient testing. Interestingly, the poll’s findings were bipartisan: 72% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats shared this concern.

US Will Revive Global Virus-Hunting Effort Ended Last Year

PREDICT was an epidemiological research program housed in the US Agency for International Aid (USAID) that was eliminated last year. PREDICT was often called an early warning system for pandemics. The program is now being resurrected as its critical function is made apparent by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which erupted mere weeks after the PREDICT program was shuttered. Last November, Michael Krug, a recent graduate of the Biodefense MS program, shared his concerns about ending the program, which was carried out despite concerns of public health experts. Krug characterized the decision as an example of how the US government underprioritizes pandemic preparedness, a criticism that was confirmed the following month. A new program, Strategies to Prevent (STOP) Spillover, will be implemented in up to 20 countries across West Africa, East/Central Africa, South Asia, and East/Southeast Asia. A notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) was released for STOP Spillover and an application should be accepted this month.  

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