Pandora Report: 3.5.2021

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) released the National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool, the first iteration of a new tool for understanding responsibilities following a disaster or emergency. The norms against the use of chemical weapons have been eroding, adding another challenge for the international community and the new Biden administration. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, shares his review of Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.

The “Red Line” That Wasn’t

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (CWs) against his own people is the greatest challenge the Chemical Weapons Convention has ever faced. This breach of the taboo against CW use sparked numerous national and international investigations to determine the details of exactly what happened and who had done it. These investigations, in turn, were severely complicated by numerous factors. Investigators had to deal with (1) the dangers of operating during a complex civil war, (2) multiple belligerents using CWs on the battlefield (both the Syrian government and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS), and (3) the Syrian government’s repeated denials and counter-accusations of any CW use. Syria’s dubious position was backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the public debate and, most importantly, at the United Nations Security Council, which provided Assad significant protection from international sanction. The global opposition to Syria’s use of CWs was widespread, but was led by the United States primarily under Barack Obama and also Donald Trump. The debate about what happened in Syria—and especially about how the world reacted to it—will undoubtedly rage for years to come. Joby Warrick’s Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World is a useful addition to this debate, but the definitive book on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war remains to be written. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a revealing review of the book. Read it here.

How S&T’s Past Bioagent Research Informs Current and Future Pandemic Response

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), along with many other research and development institutions, was suddenly forced to shift priorities when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Researchers at S&T’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) – the first DHS national laboratory – hit the ground running “to learn as much as possible about the coronavirus so that our nation is better armed to fight, control and defeat the deadly COVID-19 disease.” NBACC researchers were asked: When faced with the challenge of a lifetime, where do you start? NBACC was established in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks to study “bioterrorist threats that endanger our homeland security,” so these scientists went back to the basics as it did 20 years ago. For SARS-CoV-2, the group studied how stable the virus is in the air and how it can be transmitted. According to Dr. Victoria Wahl, Deputy Director of NBACC’s National Biological Threat Characterization Center, “The same unique capabilities NBACC has established for biodefense research can also be applied to a new agent like SARS-CoV-2 to help us understand it better.” S&T’s risk assessment practices “consider the risk posed by a variety of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents that could potentially be used by terrorists to harm the US.” Those practices helped S&T develop a Master Question List (MQL) for Ebola, and that list informed work regarding SARS-CoV-2. In the early days of the pandemic, NBACC used the knowledge garnered from the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak to help inform its efforts to better understand SARS-CoV-2. Turning toward pandemic preparedness for the future, “NBACC is using lessons learned from all these research experiences to refine and streamline the lab’s planning and workflows, so response to future outbreaks will be swifter from day one.”

Introducing the Launch of the National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool (NRF-PLAT)

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) just released the first iteration of a new tool for understanding responsibilities following a disaster or emergency. The National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool, NRF-PLAT, was inspired by input and questions from users of PNNL’s Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool (B-PLAT). The NRF-PLAT currently captures 474 requirements, recommendations, value statements and training opportunities excerpted verbatim from the main NRF document, fourth edition. Users can view and parse requirements, recommendations, value statements and training opportunities using facets that include Primary Partner, Specific Designee, Additional Partners/Designees, Specific Roles, Community Lifelines, Emergency Support Functions and Section of the NRF. The facets can also be displayed in visual format using icicle and sunburst charts, which allow a user to graphically display, for example, the relative number of requirements, recommendation, value statements and training opportunities assigned to the federal government versus individuals, families and households. NRF-PLAT is publicly available here.  

Criminal Inquiries Loom Over al-Assad’s Use of Chemical Arms in Syria

Investigations into Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria may soon be underway in France and Germany, and could lead to prosecutions of al-Assad and his associates. Syrian President al-Assad and his accomplices should be held accountable for “some of the worst atrocities committed in the decade-old Syria conflict.” Judges in a special war crimes unit of France’s Palais de Justice received a complaint about the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, which were filed by three international human rights groups. This complaint requests a criminal investigation into al-Assad, his brother, and the senior advisers and military officials that formed the chain of command. Lawyers have stated that the judges will likely accept the complaint. The request for a criminal investigation is based, in part, on a two-year study of the Syrian chemical weapons program, and this study surpasses the work of other international inquires. The study used a variety of sources with links to or knowledge of the program: defectors, former insiders, employees, and engineers. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, reviewed the study and said, “it brings to light new information from defectors and insiders.” Dr. Koblentz called it the “most comprehensive and detailed account of the Syrian weapons program available perhaps outside the intelligence services. It maps out new details on the chain of command and shows how large and complex this program was. And it can name names.”

Chemical Weapons Norms

Over the past four years since now-President Joe Biden was in the White House, chemical weapons (CWs) attacks have continued within and beyond the borders of Syria, and new state perpetrators have emerged. Indeed, the norms against the use of chemical weapons established by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) have been unashamedly violated by state and nonstate actors. Such perpetrators include North Korea, Russia, and, of course, the al-Assad regime of Syria. Any actor that uses chemical weapons must be held accountable in order to reinforce the norms and validate the notion that violations of the CWC will be punished; “consequences can deter other actors from engaging in chemical weapons programs and attacks.” The Trump administration was inconsistent and variable in its responses to chemical weapons uses. Trump mobilized a military response to CW use in Syria, but arranged to meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un – after Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated using VX nerve agent. The erosion of the global norm against chemical weapons use requires international action and cooperation to counter the degradation and restore compliance. Reinforcement of the norm against CW use will require bolstering the existing mechanisms of the CWC, while simultaneously supporting the ability of the international community to respond to the use of CWs by any actor and to hold perpetrators accountable. Additionally, states should “clarify and codify the rights and privileges a state risks losing for violating the CWC, establish a precedent for challenge inspections, and expand the mandate for the attributive Investigation and Identification Team.” Given the lack of unity within the United Nations Security Council, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) plays a vital role in pursuing actions to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use. As a reminder, the 96th Session of the Executive Council of the OPCW will take place on 9-12 March.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Third Vaccine Gets Emergency Use Authorization

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization on 27 February to Johnson & Johnson’s single dose COVID-19 vaccine. This is the third vaccine designed to fight SARS-CoV-2 that has received authorization in the US. It should simplify the logistics of the vaccination campaign, because it is a single dose inoculation and it can be stored for up to three months in a refrigerator. The other two vaccines, which are based on a different technological platform, require two shots and must be stored at extremely low temperatures. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an adenovirus vector vaccine, a 30-year-old technology based on genetically engineered common cold viruses. The multinational corporation will provide the vaccine on a non-profit basis for emergency pandemic use, and intends to produce 100 million doses in the first half of 2021.

The Last Thing Health Workers Should Have to Worry About

Even as they were making countless sacrifices during the pandemic, healthcare workers were targeted in nearly 1,200 attacks and threats of violence last year, according to a new report by Insecurity Insight and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. According to the research, 824 of these attacks were related to conflicts—hospitals bombed in Yemen, doctors abducted in Nigeria, robbery and ransom in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a disturbing twist, 412 of these attacks were directly related to the pandemic, including: threats, beatings, and assaults with stones or hot liquids. Pandemic-triggered violence was especially pronounced in India and Mexico, but it is a “truly global crisis,” affecting 79 countries, said Insecurity Insight’s Christina Wille, who led development of a new interactive map. Additionally, there have been violent reactions to mask mandates and arson attacks on COVID-19 testing facilities. The failures of year one of the COVID-19 pandemic need to be replaced with immediate action to safeguard health workers, said Leonard Rubenstein, chair of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. Rubenstein highlights recommendations in a research brief accompanying the interactive map: counter disinformation; end repression against healthcare workers who speak up; increase protection for healthcare workers; and hold perpetrators of violence and threats accountable.

CID Agent Sought Puffer Fish Toxin Before Poisoning His Wife, Charges Allege

A special agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) is “suspected of poisoning his wife two years ago and allegedly tried to acquire a toxin derived from puffer fish.” This week, Staff Sergeant Lesly J. Lindor was formally charged with the 3 September 2018 murder of Rachelle Lindor, his wife. The couple lived near Fort Hood in Harker Heights, Texas. According to records acquired by Army Times, in the months leading up to his wife’s death, Lindor “attempted to acquire tetrodotoxin for use as a weapon.” Tetrodotoxin is a potent neurotoxin found in puffer fish, globefish, and toadfish. In addition to the murder, Lindor is charged with attempting to violate the Federal Biological Weapons statute.

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