Pandora Report: 2.19.2021

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, dissects nuclear modernization challenges that the Biden administration will face. The WHO shares mixed messages about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea tried to steal coronavirus vaccine information from Pfizer. Many of the superspreaders behind COVID-19 conspiracy theories are exposed.

Nuclear Modernization Under Competing Pressures

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, and Rebecca Hersman published an analysis, Nuclear Modernization under Competing Pressures, that dissects the decisions and challenges the Biden administration must address regarding the modernization of critical elements of the US nuclear weapons enterprise. According to the authors, the “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and its corresponding W87-1 warhead is one modernization program that will face rigorous scrutiny in the early stages of the Biden administration.” The high-profile and pricey strategic delivery systems get the limelight in the modernization debate; however, the “effective modernization of the US nuclear stockpile itself” is a critically underappreciated challenge. There are a couple important steps that the Biden administration can take to enable successful US nuclear modernization: (1) ensure that modernization timelines are feasible and costs are realistic, and (2) engage Congress and international partners in discussions of nuclear modernization. Read the article here.

WHO: COVID-19 Didn’t Leak From a Lab. Also WHO: Maybe It Did

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a mixed methods social scientist researching biological threats at King’s College London, discusses the conflicting statements made by the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the theories about how SARS-CoV-2 came to be. The joint WHO-China investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic announced that their efforts ruled out the possibility that the novel virus escaped from a laboratory and that it most likely jumped species before infecting humans. A few days later, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that no hypotheses have been ruled out. Lentzos points out the missing pieces of the puzzle in the joint team’s conclusion as well as the inaccuracies in their logic. For instance, the findings assume that all research is published and publicly available, but much of it is not. Indeed, the virus database of the Wuhan Institute of Virology was taken offline at the start of 2020 for “security reasons.” Also, Peter Ben Embarek, co-leader of the mission, commented that laboratory accidents are “extremely rare events.” On the contrary, such accidents are not rare, but accidents that cause documented outbreaks are rare. Lentzos points out that the “publicly-available genetic and epidemiological evidence collected so far about SARS-CoV-2 and the outbreak does not exclude the possibility of a lab leak.” Read Lentzos’ analysis here.

We Need a Global Outbreak Investigation Team—Now

The much-anticipated findings of the team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic proved anticlimactic. In fact, they have also added another layer of confusion given the conflicting statement from the WHO’s director-general that all origin hypotheses remain viable. The team ruled out the possibility of the novel virus stemming from a laboratory leak. The conflicting announcements out of WHO have left many worrying about the many constraints the international body must operate under. For instance, the WHO can “only enter member countries and engage in research there on those countries’ terms, and it has no real powers of enforcement.” Perhaps, something new is needed. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, suggests an international body, similar to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that could “require biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs to report on the activities that go on inside them.” The Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that bans the development of bioweapons, already has a legal structure and could, theoretically, create the enforcement authority for such an agency. Alternatively, Koblentz also suggests, the “UN Security Council could establish such a body, the same way it created commissions to inspect Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction.” Of course, either of these entities would take time to establish and would be based on voluntary participation from states. Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, proposed the World Health Assembly as another option for “mandating investigations that can get boots on the ground the moment reports of an outbreak with pandemic potential emerge.” The proliferation of BSL laboratories in response to COVID-19 “should be reason enough for rethinking the status quo.” More labs mean more gain-of-function research, in which pathogens are modified to study how they might become more dangerous, and would require more lab oversight to ensure safety.

North Korea Tried to Steal Pfizer Coronavirus Vaccine Information, South Says

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported that North Korea attempted to hack into the servers of Pfizer, a US drugmaker, to steal COVID-19 vaccine and treatment information. This report belies dictator Kim Jong Un’s “professed view that his isolated dictatorship is untouched by the pandemic.” It is not clear when the cyberattack on Pfizer occurred or if it was successful. This is just the latest cyberattack carried out by North Korea in its “alleged ongoing campaign to obtain sensitive information through nefarious means and its growing cyber capabilities.” In November, Microsoft revealed that North Korean and Russian hackers tried to steal data from pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers; efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Last year, South Korea announced it had thwarted a hacking attempt by North Korea that targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines.

Weaponized: How Rumors About COVID-19’s Origins Led to a Narrative Arms Race

A joint research project with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and the Associated Press examined the information environments of China, the United States, Russia, and Iran during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inaccuracies that gained traction in those states. The report emphasizes how “varying, unverified, and outright false narratives that the virus was a bioweapon or the result of a lab accident spread globally on social media and beyond, and the geopolitical consequences of those narratives.” As the country that suffered the initial outbreak, China was “central to narratives that [the novel coronavirus] was a bioweapon either developed by or, conversely, targeting the country.” Government officials in the US – including then-President Donald Trump – took a different approach, implying that the virus originated in and escaped a laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and going one step further by postulating that its release from WIV could have been intentional. Some of the preliminary narratives arose in Russia, which were aimed at furthering its own geopolitical agenda and its anti-US sentiments. Given its fraught political situation, Iran’s messaging targeted its domestic audiences and aimed to renew the “Iranian public’s fidelity to the regime.” Read the full report here.

The Superspreaders Behind Top COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

The rapid spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories can be partially attributed to states – China, Iran, Russia, and even the US – touting ideas tailored to their own agendas. But certain individuals have also gained traction with the public: college professors lacking evidence or virology training are plugged as experts and anonymous social media personalities masquerading as high-level intelligence officials. The joint nine-month investigation conducted by the Associated Press and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DRFLab) also aimed to “identify the people and organizations behind some of the most viral misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus.” The explosive claims based on weak evidence were shared with the world by COVID-19 conspiracy theory superspreaders. For example, Francis Boyle, a Harvard-trained law professor at the University of Illinois, asserts that SARS-CoV-2 is a genetically engineered bioweapon that escaped from a high-containment laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Boyle’s evidence is circumstantial: the existence of a BSL-4 laboratory in WIV, the previous virus escape events from other laboratories, and his belief that “governments around the world are engaged in a secret arms race over biological weapons.” Igor Nikulin, who calls himself a biologist and former weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations (UN), claims that the virus was engineered by the US and deployed as an attack in China. Nikulin provides no evidence to support his accusation, nor can his supposed employment history with the UN be verified.

Dr. Saskia Popescu: Hospitals’ First Line of COVID Defense

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, is a go-to consultant for hospitals and the World Health Organization, helping to control infections and prepare for new outbreaks. Popescu also helps educate policymakers and the public using her expertise on the novel coronavirus and the approaches to containing it. She also serves as an infection prevention consultant for larger businesses and the City of Phoenix, Arizona, in their efforts to incorporate COVID-19 safety into the workplace. Popescu has “built COVID-19 response and preparedness programs for hospitals from scratch, and is constantly looking at case counts and analyzing data locally and internationally to ensure she’s providing the most informed recommendations possible.” She explained, “It’s extremely hard to build a robust response and preparedness program and be able to keep it agile, respond to changes in the science and data, and do it in a way that is pragmatic.” Popescu said. George Mason News featured Dr. Popescu on Twitter. Watch the video here.

The CRISPR Revolution and Its Potential Impact on Global Health Security

Kyle E. Watters, Jesse Kirkpatrick, Megan J. Palmer, and Gregory D. Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, published an article in Pathogens and Global Health about the potential impact of the CRISPR revolution on global health security. Global health security is constantly under threat from infectious diseases. Despite advances in biotechnology that have improved diagnosis and treatment of such diseases, delays in detecting outbreaks and the lack of countermeasures for some biological agents continue to pose severe challenges to global health security. In this review, the authors describe some of the challenges facing global health security and how genome editing technologies can help overcome them. They provide specific examples of how the genome-editing tool CRISPR is being used to develop new tools to characterize pathogenic agents, diagnose infectious disease, and develop vaccines and therapeutics to mitigate the effects of an outbreak. The article also discusses some of the challenges associated with genome-editing technologies and the efforts that scientists are undertaking to mitigate them. Overall, CRISPR and genome-editing technologies are poised to have a significant positive influence on global health security over the years to come. Read the article here.  

This new article connects with the two-year multidisciplinary study, Editing Biosecurity, conducted at George Mason University to explore critical biosecurity issues related to CRISPR and related genome editing technologies. The overarching goal of the study was to present policy options and recommendations to key stakeholders, and identify broader trends in the life sciences that may alter the security landscape. Outputs of the Editing Biosecurity project can be found here.  

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