Pandora Report: 11.13.2020

The Pandora Report thanks veterans of the US military for their service! As the country awaits Biden’s presidency, a number of concerns arise regarding the remainder of the Trump administration as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden has already named 13 health experts to his COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board. Join the Biodefense Graduate Program for a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how to 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.

Friday the 13th

Jason Voorhees, the fictitious killer in the “Friday the 13th” slasher movies and comic series, is the star of a new advertising campaign aimed at encouraging mask-wearing to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. In it, he points out that even though masks may be scary, “not wearing one can be deadly.” Watch Jason’s PSA 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 to 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

Biden Names 13 Health Experts To COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board

As infections continue to surge, president-elect Joe Biden has named 13 health experts to his Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. The board will be co-chaired by three people: Dr. David Kessler of the University of California, San Francisco and former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner; Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General; and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale University. In a statement on Monday, Biden said, “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations.” Biden acknowledged that the ongoing pandemic is one of the greatest challenges that his administration must tackle, and he has committed to being “informed by science and by experts.” The board will also include Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA); Luciana Borio, a biodefense and disease specialist who has worked for the National Security Council; and Eric Goosby, the UN Special Envoy on Tuberculosis and former United States Global AIDS Coordinator.

Counties with Worst Virus Surges Overwhelmingly Voted Trump

An analysis conducted by the Associated Press (AP) found that nearly all (93%) of the 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita went for Trump in the recent election. Most were rural counties in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin. Lower rates of adherence to mandates for mask-wearing and social distancing tend to be seen in rural areas. Given this trend, state health officials are pausing to contemplate how to reframe their messaging to improve compliance in communities resisting the public health measures for COVID-19. According to AP VoteCast, 36% of Trump voters described the pandemic as completely or mostly under control, and 47% said it was somewhat under control. In contrast, 82% of Biden voters said the pandemic is not at all under control.

‘It’s going to be very, very scary’: Before Biden Takes Office, a Precarious 10 Weeks for Escalating COVID-19 Crisis

Dr. Saskia Popescu, a Term Assistant Professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program, shared her worries that the Trump administration will assume a scorched-earth approach in response to losing the election to Joe Biden. She says, “it’s going to be very, very scary.” A number of public health experts fear for the crisis that the election results may incite: a transition period of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and deaths. Election week saw record high numbers of cases, even as Trump downplayed the pandemic. Though it is not the convention to publicly challenge the outgoing president on basic matters of governance until the president-elect’s inauguration, Biden’s health care advisers are already reaching out to mayors and governors. Biden’s team is also already planning for a transition of power at health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But until Inauguration Day, Biden lacks the formal power to institute mask mandates, affect the manufacture of protective equipment for medical workers, or impact COVID-19 testing. Until then, Biden and his incoming administration are taking a public-facing role to encourage caution and compliance with public health guidelines.

America’s Poised for a 180-Degree Turn on Climate Change with a Biden Victory

The incoming Biden administration aims to shift the US away from fossil fuels and expand protections for public lands, but these efforts will face serious opposition from the Senate GOP. Biden is expected to “restore dozens of environmental safeguards President Trump abolished and launch the boldest climate change plan of any president in history.” Despite the anticipated pushback from Senate Republicans and conservative attorneys general, Biden plans to make a 180-degree turn on climate change and conservation policy in the US. Indeed, he identified climate change as one of his top presidential priorities, and plans to “restrict oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters; ratchet up federal mileage standards for cars and SUVs; block pipelines that transport fossil fuels across the country; provide federal incentives to develop renewable power; and mobilize other nations to make deeper cuts in their own carbon emissions.”

Upcoming Event – Outreach 2.0: Emerging Technologies and Effective Outreach Practices

The Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) is hosting an event, “Outreach 2.0: Emerging Technologies and Effective Outreach Practices,” sponsored by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). The event will feature discussion on emerging technology outreach challenges as well as outreach tools and good practices to raise awareness among private sector stakeholders in industry, research, and academia. The speakers, Scott Jones and Andrea Viski of STRI, will present an advanced outreach model – Outreach 2.0 – built on input from international stakeholders from the public and private sectors. Andrea Viski is also an Adjunct Professor in the Schar School’s Master’s in International Commerce and Policy program. During the event, the speakers will introduce Outreach 2.0 and conduct an exchange with three renowned discussants: Todd Perry of the US Department of State; Katherine Wyslocky of Public Safety Canada; and Kevin Cuddy of IBM. Sign up here.

Lessons from the Roosevelt: A Call for Improving the US Navy’s Preparedness for Biological Threats

Lt. Cmdr. Brian L. Pike, leader of the Navy unit that detected the first cases of COVID-19 onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, published a commentary in War on the Rocks about important lessons to be learned from the outbreak of COVID-19 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt. In late March, SARS-CoV-2 snuck aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt to infect its sailors. Kasper et al. assesses the COVID-19 outbreak on the aircraft carrier, finding that SARS-CoV-2 spread quickly among the crew. Given the confined work environment of Navy ships, an outbreak is devastating to the crew and operations. Indeed, on the Teddy Roosevelt, 25% of the crew was ultimately infected, one sailor died, and the ship was forced out of operation for 10 weeks. Pike and Koblentz recommend mitigating the fleet’s vulnerabilities to biological threats of the future and enhancing the Navy’s shipboard capabilities. If an infectious disease cannot be contained and managed, then the advantages of early detection are lost. The authors encourage a comprehensive review of the Navy’s response procedures as an important step for ensuring that it is prepared to mitigate future biological threats.

North Korea and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Evidence

North Korea’s announcement that it is working on a COVID-19 vaccine has revived attention on Pyongyang’s ostensible biological weapons (BW) program. The Stimson Center released a report, North Korea and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Evidence, which reviews the public statements from the United states and South Korea regarding the suspected program. These two nations have the greatest security interests on the Korean Peninsula. The report also examines the policy responses adopted by the two governments and whether those actions have been consistent with concerns that North Korea has an advanced BW program. Five themes emerge from this review: (1) the US government uses several terms to discuss the possibility of BWs that are highly ambiguous; (2) there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding the specifics of North Korea’s suspected BW program; (3) public assessments between the US and South Korea are inconsistent; (4) some assessments into the North Korean BW issue between government agencies have been contradictory; and (5) the US government possesses fragmented insight into North Korea’s BW capabilities and intentions.

73rd World Health Assembly

The 73rd Session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), is ongoing in a virtual format. Unsurprisingly, one of the major topics of the WHA is charting the course for the COVID-19 response and setting global health priorities. Many nations and cities have successfully prevented and controlled transmission of SARS-CoV-2 with comprehensive and evidence-based approaches. Other nations and areas are still struggling to achieve the same results, but the WHO maintains that we can beat COVID-19 with science, solutions, and solidarity. The WHA is also covering the critical health goals that cannot be allowed to backslide amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that health is foundational to social, economic, and political stability, session will discuss a 10-year plan for addressing neglected tropical diseases, as well as efforts to address meningitis, epilepsy and other neurological disorders, maternal infant and young child nutrition, digital health, and the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel.

Last week, an oversight panel called for reforms to the WHO that encompasses “predictable and flexible funding and setting up a multi-tiered system to warn countries earlier about disease outbreaks before they escalate.” A “significant discrepancy between member states’ financial contributions and their expectations” of WHO’s Emergency Programme was found, raising concerns. In regard to declaring a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), COVID-19 raised concerns that the one-level system is inadequate, with experts recommending a graded system with clear criteria.

The CDC Chief Lost His Way During COVID-19. Now His Agency Is in the Balance.

Former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Richard Besser said, “The integrity of the agency has been compromised. That falls to the director of CDC.” In a letter sent in September, Dr. William Foege, a former CDC director, encouraged Dr. Robert Redfield, the current director of the CDC, to orchestrate his own firing. Records show that Redfield pressured local health officers to grant favors to politicians and businesses and he allowed political appointees outside of the CDC to draft and publish information on the agency’s website, regardless of the objections from his top scientists and without technical review. USA TODAY interviewed dozens of current and former colleagues of Redfield; interviewees included his supporters and critics. One of the interviewed officials stated that agency employees felt like they had no choice but to publish the school reopening guidelines in August, which were revised by the White House. CDC staff has largely lost respect for their leader and recent CDC employee surveys show that morale has fallen severely. CDC employees indicated that they view the White House Coronavirus Task Force as a “black box, where the agency’s guidance goes in one way and mysteriously comes out another.” In fact, Redfield is typically in the meetings held by the task force, but without his deputies or subject matter experts. The ongoing crisis at the CDC occurring parallel to the pandemic is eroding trust as the outputs of the agency are increasingly questioned.

Mobility Network Models of COVID-19 Explain Inequities and Inform Reopening

A new article in Nature uses mobility network models to simulate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to explain inequities and inform reopening activities. The authors introduce a metapopulation Susceptible-Exposed-Infective-Recovered (SEIR) epidemiological model to simulate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in 10 of the largest US metropolitan statistical areas. Using cell phone data, the mobility networks map the hourly movements of 98 million people from neighborhoods to points of interests like restaurants and religious facilities. Using these integrated networks, this research shows that a relatively simple SEIR model is able to accurately fit the trajectory of real cases. Their model predicts that a small minority of points of interest served as “superspreader” sites, accounting for a majority of infections. This finding supports the notion of restricting maximum occupancy at these types of sites is more effective than uniformly reducing mobility. Their model also accurately predicts higher rates of infection within disadvantaged racial and socioeconomic groups based on differences in mobility. The authors found that members of disadvantaged groups have not been able to reduce mobility as significantly and that the points of interest they visit tend to be more crowded, thus higher risk.

AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards

This year, the Kavli Science Journalism Award administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) celebrates its 75th year! Since 1945, the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards have honored professional journalists for distinguished reporting on the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winners include six submissions featuring notable explanatory and investigative reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Lauren Weber, Laura Ungar, Hannah Recht, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Michelle R. Smith from Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press won the Gold Award for Science Reporting – Large Outlet with “Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus.” Sarah Kaplan from The Washington Post won the Silver Award for “The Storm Inside.” Ed Yong from The Atlantic won the Gold Award for Science Reporting – In Depth with “How the Pandemic Will End,” “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing,” and “America’s Patchwork Pandemic Is Fraying Even Further.” Joss Fong, Áron Filkey and Joey Sendaydiego from Vox won the Silver Award for Video Spot News/Feature Reporting with “How Covid-19 can be more and less deadly than we knew.”  Wendy Zukerman, Rose Rimler, Meryl Horn, Michelle Dang and Blythe Terrell of the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet Media won the Gold Award for Audio with “Coronavirus: Will Chloroquine Save Us,” “Coronavirus: Was It Made In a Lab,” and “Coronavirus: How Many Silent Spreaders Are There?” Yunanto Utomo, Gregorius Jovinto, Bayu Adi Prakoso, Anggara Kusumaatmaja and Haman Hama from (Indonesia) won the Silver Award for Children’s Science News with “Virion: A Tale of Coronavirus for Old School Comic Fans,” “Virion: A Tale of Coronavirus for Old School Comic Fans – Part 2,” and “Virion: An Interactive Quest to Find Covid-19 Vaccine.”

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.

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