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.

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