Pandora Report: 11.6.2020

Belated Happy One Health Day! The US officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on 4 November. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student and Assistant Editor for The Pandora Report, provides an analysis about vehicle ramming attacks (VRAs) by terrorists. The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a virtual event, “The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)” on 17 November.

Driven to Extremes: Vehicle Ramming as a Terrorist Tactic

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, analyzes data related to vehicle ramming attacks (VRAs), which are terrorist attacks that utilize the kinetic force of a vehicle to strike its target. Kiesel uses the publicly available information from the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database, comprising records of VRAs from 1970 through 2018. Her commentary examines attacks with land vehicles, such as cars, trucks, tractors, and buses, in order to understand how extremists with limited means can still perpetrate a devastating attack with relatively few resources. Read Keisel’s article here.

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

Sign up for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ free newsletter and get the best coverage of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. For 75 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been publishing evidence-based coverage of the critical issues that threaten our world, elevating the experts above the noise. Contributors include Pandora Report regulars such as Greg Koblentz, Saskia Popescu, and Filippa Lentzos. We don’t have a second to waste — sign up today.

Election Excitement

As the country continues to wait with bated breath for the official announcement of the election victor, there are several matters hanging in the balance, many of which revolve around the ongoing pandemic. As Americans flock to the polls or ballot drop boxes, the daily average of newly confirmed cases in the US has reached an all-time high of over 86,000. US cases have broken 9 million and deaths have surpassed 234,000. Even if Biden wins, Trump has over 80 days left in office, which could see another 100,000 US deaths from the novel coronavirus. Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), encourages Americans to practice social distancing, frequently wash hands, and wear masks faithfully. In regard to the research and development underway for SARS-CoV-2 treatments and vaccines, many public health experts worry that these efforts will be hurt if Trump follows through with his threats to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci or any of the other top health officials with whom Trump has locked horns. Biden has already pledged to keep Fauci on board and “put scientists and public health officials front and center.” Biden has also promised to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) on his first day in office. Biden also intends to establish his own COVID-19 task force to work in parallel to Trump’s sidelined advisory panel. The new task force would include former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University’s Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale University’s Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel, and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita.

Regardless of the results, the 2020 election has proven to be a “disaster for public health,” as more than 67 million Americans seem to be following Trump’s lead on public health. According to preliminary exit polls, merely 14% of surveyed Republican voters listed the COVID-19 pandemic as the deciding factor in who they voted for. STAT found that interviewed scientists, epidemiologists, and public health experts were split about the future of public health.

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

Priorities for the Next President to Reduce Biological Threats

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) outlined a set of priorities for the next presidential term in a pair of papers, “Reducing Nuclear Risks: An Urgent Agenda for 2021 and Beyond” and “Preventing the Next Global Biological Catastrophe.” The former paper recommends adapting US policies and posture to reduce nuclear risks; working with Russia and China to reduce nuclear risks; strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime; prioritizing efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism in the homeland and abroad; and strengthening cohesion at home and diplomacy abroad. The latter paper recommends rescinding the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO); establishing a summit for heads-of-state regarding biological threats; promoting the establishment of a Global Health Security (GHS) Challenge Fund; supporting the launch of a Dedicated Global Entity for reducing the risk of a biotechnology catastrophe; advocating for the establishment of a permanent United Nations (UN) facilitator and unit within the Office of the UN Secretary-General dedicated to responding to high-consequence biological events; and strengthening international capabilities to rapidly investigate biological events of unknown origin.

Pandemic Priorities for the 117th Congress

Congressional Democrats previewed their legislative priorities for pandemic prevention and preparedness if they succeed in holding onto the House and flipping the Senate. In a letter released on October 22 addressed to the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House and Senate, 134 Senators and Representatives outlined a five-point plan to strengthen health security at home and abroad. The letter calls for increased investment in state, local, and tribal public health departments, including hiring 250,000 new public health workers, stronger biosurveillance efforts abroad to detect the emergence of new diseases, elimination of racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to healthcare, and mitigating the effects of environment degradation and climate change which contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases.

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 12 November, there will be a Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House at 6:30pm EDT, featuring Former Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe. McCabe is now a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Homeland Security at the Schar School and an intelligence analyst for CNN. 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 the 12 November open house here.

3 November Was One Health Day!

One Health Day is an international campaign coordinated jointly by the One Health Commission, the One Health Initiative Autonomous pro bono Team, and the One Health Platform Foundation. The purpose of One Health Day is to highlight the need for One Health approaches and initiatives and to showcase existing efforts. In this pandemic era, the importance of One Health has never been so clear given the likely zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. The One Health concept is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes by recognizing the interconnection between humans, animals, plants, and their shared environment.

UN Report Says Up to 850,000 Animal Viruses Could Be Caught by Humans Unless We Protect Nature

A report drafted from the Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics held by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The workshop recognized that pandemics are an “existential threat to the health and welfare of people across our planet.” Infectious disease events are occurring more frequently, largely due to “global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change.” Many of these changes push humans and wildlife together, creating more opportunities for zoonoses to emerge. The report states there may be as many as 850,000 animal viruses that could jump into humans if we do not take the necessary steps to protect nature. The high level of mobility in the world sets the stage for quick dissemination of diseases from one part of the world to another. The report asserts that pandemic risk could be lowered by decreasing anthropogenic global environmental change through the promotion of responsible consumption and the reduction of excessive consumption of meat from livestock production. Given that illegal wildlife trade is a major issue, improving regulations and surveillance of these activities would help lower pandemic risk.

Climate Change Catastrophe

On 4 November, the US officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, precisely one year after the withdrawal submission was cast. This move, which is final regardless of the winner of the US presidential election, is a major blow to international efforts to halt global climate change. The goal of the Agreement is to limit global warming to keep the global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to work toward limiting the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Trump’s climate legacy will center around his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and his moves to systematically undo federal climate policies instituted under Obama. Dozens of climate-related regulations have been reversed, such as rules on air pollution, emissions, drilling and oil and gas extraction. As the US pulls out, China and the European Union are taking the lead on mitigating climate change. Joe Biden, should he become president, has already stated that he would rejoin the Agreement. According to Michael Oppenheimer, a climate policy researcher at Princeton University, “The United States can’t simply jump back in and pretend it’s all back to 2015; it will need to work to regain trust.”

Biosecurity: The Importance of Digital Information Security

Merrick is hosting a free webinar on 11 November about the importance of data security as a vital element of institutional biosecurity. Merrick and GeneInfoSec Inc, a company that focuses on the security of genetic data and mitigation of related vulnerabilities, will cover the fundamentals of biosecurity and biorisk management, and the information security threat landscape within the laboratory environment. Register for the webinar here.

WH Adviser Scott Atlas Apologizes for Interview with Kremlin-Backed News Outlet

Dr. Scott Atlas, a White House coronavirus adviser, issued an apology last Sunday for doing an interview with Russia’s state-backed RT network. RT, formerly Russia Today, is an international television and news network financed by the government of Russian and its US arm is registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 2017. Its designation as a foreign agent means that its content is considered to be “propaganda attempting to influence US public opinion, policy and laws.” RT’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been flagged as under state-affiliated control. In a 2017 report from the US intelligence community, RT was branded as part of Russia’s “state-run propaganda machine,” which tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and possibly in this year’s election as well. In the interview, published on Halloween, Atlas downplayed the severity of the coronavirus surge in the US and claimed that lockdowns instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19 are “not impactful.” On 1 November, Atlas tweeted:

“I recently did an interview with RT and was unaware they are a registered foreign agent. I regret doing the interview and apologize for allowing myself to be taken advantage of. I especially apologize to the national security community who is working hard to defend us.”

Tests Show Genetic Signature of Virus That May Have Infected President Trump

The White House did not take basic steps to investigate its recent outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infections, such as extensive contact tracing or genetic sequencing. The New York Times (NYT) worked with prominent geneticists to discern the genetic sequence of viruses that infected two NYT journalists who were likely exposed while reporting on the White House. The two journalists had significant, but separate, exposure to White House officials in late September. Both experienced symptoms several days after their respective exposures, which occurred without being in proximity with each other. After testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the genomes of their viruses were analyzed and found to share the same distinct pattern of mutations. According to Trevor Bedford, the geneticist who led the research team with NYT, their exposures paired with the shared patterns in viral mutations suggests that the two journalists were infected in the White House outbreak. The White House did not conduct its own genetic analysis of those infected in its outbreak. Dr. David Engelthaler, head of the infectious disease branch of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, said, “It’s critical no matter where we are to sequence this virus.”

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. “The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation gift makes it possible for many students to attend our high-ranked security studies programs and prepare for careers in intelligence and security policy,” said Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell. “We are grateful for this new partnership that will advance our shared goal of educating and training future policy professionals in these fields.” Distinguished Visiting Professor and former Director of the CIA and NSA Michael V. Hayden touted the gift:

“There has never been a time when the national security threats facing our nation have been as diverse. The Schar School is growing to meet those challenges, be they from peer rivals, persistent terrorist threats, or the consequences of technological developments. This scholarship fund will enhance the Schar School’s already stellar reputation in attracting a strong and diverse pool of graduate student candidates who will serve as our next generation of hands-on, solutions-driven national security leaders.”

Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s