Pandora Report: 9.11.2020

This week’s Pandora Report covers, brace yourself, some of the latest developments related to COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2! For those of us desperate for a momentary pause from pandemic news, we also summarized a brief history on assassinations using nerve agents and highlighted a new report about human heritable gene editing (think CRISPR babies). On a lighter note, Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on arson as an increasingly popular terrorist tactic.

In Memory of 9/11

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On that morning, four coordinated terrorist attacks were carried out by 19 members of al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. The attacks targeted the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex and a third plane into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania. The attacks killed 2,997 people from 93 nations.

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides important insight on the use of arson as a terrorist tactic, especially as the pandemic provides opportunities to exploit and amplify public chaos and discomfort.  A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

FAO/OIE/WHO Tripartite Statement on the Pandemic Risk of Swine Influenza

A recent report documenting the circulation of A(H1N1) subtype influenza viruses in China’s swine population is an alert for the pandemic risks with swine influenza viruses. A tripartite statement from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO) urges the rapid analysis and risk assessment of new and updated swine influenza surveillance data. It also recommends that laboratories continue to conduct tests for swine influenza given the concern regarding human infections with novel influenza viruses including strains of swine-origin.  

Update: COVID-19 Vaccine

With 321 candidates, the COVID-19 vaccine research and development landscape has progressed at a record rate. Of the total candidates, 33 are in clinical trials with plans to enroll nearly 300,000 subjects from over 470 sites in 34 countries. Candidate types run the gamut: live attenuated virus, inactivated virus, non-replicating viral vector based, replicating viral vector based, recombinant protein, virus-like particle, DNA, and RNA. Clinical development requires well-designed trials with a carefully selected endpoint, insight into what constitutes protective immunity, adequate representation of the target population, and strong considerations for safety. Despite the unprecedented headway, there exist several hurdles and uncertainties regarding the approval of a vaccine. In regard to Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that a “deep state” in the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) was slowing approval of a vaccine, the FDA is shielding vaccine reviewers from outside political influence and noise. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn announced that the agency will maintain “high standards that Americans expect for safety and effectiveness,” so there will be no shortcuts taken to perilously accelerate the timeline to approval. In terms of a timeline, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not anticipate widespread COVID-19 vaccinations until mid-2021. According to WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris, there has yet to be a “clear signal” from candidates in vaccine trials that efficacy has reached the minimum 50% level. This week, US public health officials and Pfizer stated that a vaccine could be ready for distribution as soon as late October, right before the presidential election.

History of Nerve Agent Assassinations

On 20 August, Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, was hospitalized for illness due to poisoning. After being airlifted to Germany for treatment, a German military laboratory confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in a failed assassination attempt. This was not the first case of a political opponent – or a perceived enemy – being the victim of poisoning, as Jean-Pascal Zanders has detailed in his brief history of the use of nerve agents for assassination.  In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. More recently, in 2017, a binary version of VX was used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Two years ago, a Novichok nerve agent was ineffectively used by Russia in an attempt to eliminate a former double agent living in the United Kingdom. Between 1994 and 2020, Zanders has tallied a dozen known assassination operations with neurotoxicants like Novichok. Although only two of the 11 direct targets died, nine innocent bystanders were killed and hundreds more sickened.

Navigating a Post-Pandemic World

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened 150 scholars from 20 nations to create a digital magazine that provides “grounded, fresh analysis and new approaches to some of the most consequential challenges unfolding before us.” The magazine, “The Day After: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World,” covers a range of important topics like nuclear arms control, disinformation, climate change, and the foreign and domestic policies of several countries. Current featured essays include “India’s Path to the Big Leagues” by Ashley J Tellis, “Securing Cyberspace” by Michael Nelson and George Perkovich, and “A Coming Decade of Arab Decisions” by Marwan Muasher and Maha Yahya. Read the magazine here.

Half of Troops See Coronavirus as a Major Threat for the Military: Poll

According to a Military Times Poll conducted in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, about half of surveyed active-duty troops believe the pandemic poses a “significant threat to military readiness and operations.” On the other hand, respondents were divided over the sufficiency of service leaders’ response. Results found that 48% of surveyed service members “do not believe their chain of command has taken the appropriate steps to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” but 46% “have confidence in leadership’s response.” Response measures included shutting down most military travel for three months, pausing changes to duty stations, and significantly curbing worldwide operations. As of this week, the Department of Defense has reported over 39,000 COVID-19 cases among military members along with 17,000 cases among civilian employees, military dependents, and contractors. To date, seven service members have died from COVID-19 complications.

Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy

As the world races to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, countries such as China and Russia are expanding their espionage efforts to steal information at US research institutes and companies. Chinese hackers targeted the University of North Carolina and other universities working on vaccine research against the novel coronavirus, and Russia’s foremost intelligence service, the SVR, is following suit. Iran is also trying to steal vaccine research information form the US. To sum it up, every major espionage service in the world is working to purloin US data and research related to COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic has created a “grand game of spy versus spy,” with the US as a key target. This newly enhanced threat has prompted the US to expand its protective efforts for universities and R&D companies. Additionally, NATO intelligence is inspecting efforts by the Kremlin to steal vaccine research. According to a current and a former official, China is covertly using material from the World Health Organization to inform its hacking attempts in the US and Europe. In regard to China’s spying and hacking, US intelligence officials first learned about the attempts in early February, the start of the pandemic in the US. In July, the Department of Justice indicted two hackers working for China’s Ministry of State Security spy service for conducting a computer intrusion campaign targeting intellectual property and confidential business information. In response to such discovered attempts, the administration ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. Members of Cozy Bear, a Russian hacking group, were caught attempting to steal vaccine data. On 11 August, Russia announced that it had approved a vaccine, an event that provoked suspicion that its R&D was involuntarily aided by stolen information. Beyond US universities, it is suspected that foreign spies are targeting biotech companies Gilead Sciences, Novavax, and Moderna. Though no corporation or university has reported any data thefts, some hacking efforts have successfully penetrated network defenses.

Report of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released its report, Heritable Human Genome Editing, drafted by the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing. Heritable genome editing entails changing the genetic material of ova, sperm, or any cell related to their development (cells of early embryos), and establishing pregnancy. This capability raises scientific, medical, ethical, moral, and societal concerns. In 2018, a Chinese scientist announced the birth of the first genome-edited human babies, commonly referred to as the “CRISPR babies,” which sparked legal and bioethical controversies and widespread disapproval. The scientist behind the CRISPR babies was removed from his research position and sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice.” This heavily-publicized and criticized event spurred a great debate about the use and ethics of human heritable gene editing. The Commission was convened by NASEM with the objective of developing a “framework for scientists, clinicians, and regulatory authorities to consider when assessing potential clinical applications of human germline genome editing, should society conclude that heritable human genome editing applications are acceptable.”  Read the full report here.

Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, examines key geopolitical trends expected to shape the future nuclear proliferation landscape. The reports identifies and assesses seven trends such as the rise of authoritarian leadership, the increase in nuclear threats and growing tensions within regional security environments, and the swelling competitiveness between the US and China as well as the US and Russia. This report was written with Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student and a Program Coordinator for the Project on Nuclear Issues at CSIS. Read the full report here.

News of the Weird: COVID-19 Instigates Ad Changes

As the pandemic endures, large companies are reconsidering their advertising jingles. After 64 years, Kentucky Fried Chicken (lovingly known as KFC), announced that it is suspending its famous “finger lickin’ good” slogan in order to better support public health measures. Similarly, McDonald’s Brazil debuted a socially-distanced logo with its famous golden arches spread apart. Burger King is also adjusting its store logo by replacing “Home of the Whopper” signs with “Stay Home” signs. COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity for company re-branding, even if only temporarily.

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