Pandora Report: 4.23.2021

State Department releases its annual reports assessing arms control compliance and adherence. Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program, receives the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees. Globally, to date, there have been nearly 145 million cases of COVID-19 and over 3 million deaths from the novel coronavirus. In much-needed good news, all adults (16 years and older) in the US are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

State Department Releases Arms Control Compliance Reports

The US Department of State released its reports regarding compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements and commitments. The report assesses the adherence of the US as well as other nations, including Iran, North Korea, Syria, China, and Russia. In short, the activities of the US in 2020 were “consistent with the obligations set forth in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” Additionally, the US has “provided a full and complete declaration of its chemical weapons (CW) and associated CW facilities, and continues to work toward completing the destruction of CW and associated CW facilities, in accordance with its CWC obligations.” Turning to the activities of other countries, there are concerns about BWC compliance in China and Iran. North Korea and Russia are suspected of maintaining offensive biological weapons programs, which violates Article I of the BWC.

State’s 2021 report on CWC compliance alleges that Iran and Myanmar are in violation of the CWC for failing to declare former chemical weapons facilities. GMU’s Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and master’s student Madeline Roty encourage the US to help Myanmar come clean about its chemical weapons program in an article released in March 2020. The motivation and objective of the clandestine weapons program remains unclear, but speculation includes defense or offense measures against domestic insurgencies or neighboring countries. Despite its continued denial of the program, Myanmar seems to be moving toward transparency with its willingness to address concerns about its adherence (or lack thereof) to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The State Department also raises concerns about Chinese research with pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs) and toxins with dual-use applications. Similarly, there are worries about Iran’s work with PBAs. In August 2020, Russia violated the CWC by deploying a Novichok nerve agent in an attempted assassination of Alexi Navalny. The US also accuses Syria of being in non-compliance with the CWC due to its repeated use of chemical weapons and its failure to fully declare its CW program and destroy chemical agents and munitions. Read the reports here and here.  

Watchdog Group Votes to Punish Syria for Chemical Weapons Use

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the entity tasked with enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), voted to remove the membership rights of Syria, which can no longer cast votes or hold committee positions. This determination is a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. The measure required a two-thirds majority: 87 countries approved the measure, 14 opposed, and 34 abstained. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, weighed in on the measure: “The penalties imposed today are a slap on the wrist compared to the magnitude of Syria’s egregious behavior, [but] they send a strong signal that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.”

Dr. Brian Mazanec Receives the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees

Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program, is among the recipients of the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees. The award recognizes a dozen exceptional public servants for “performing outstanding service in the fields of applied science and engineering, basic science, leadership and management, legal achievement, and social science.” Dr. Mazanec serves as the director responsible for the strategic warfare and intelligence portfolio of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). He has “demonstrated outstanding leadership, innovation, and excellence in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the national security enterprise, particularly the intelligence community, better preparing Congress and agencies to address critical emerging threats and challenges.” Mazanec has led work in intelligence and counterintelligence, counterterrorism, building foreign partner capacity, cybersecurity, and foreign military financing and sales. Congratulations, Dr. Mazanec!

Global Health Security: USAID and CDC Funding, Activities, and Assessments of Countries’ Capacities to Address Infectious Disease Threats before COVID-19 Onset

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its findings of a study about the Global Health Security funds used US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). USAID and the CDC invest in global health security to help other nations build their capacities to deal with infectious diseases. The GAO study found that USAID and the CDC had dispersed roughly $1 billion as of 31 March 2020 for global health security activities. This money went to at least 34 countries, including 25 recognized as partner countries with the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). This support helped build capacity in 17 GHSA partner countries, which helps them address infectious disease threats. Also, by the end of fiscal year 2019, most of those 17 nations possessed some capacity in each of the 11 technical areas, but continued to face various challenges. Read the report here.

‘Building Back Better’ Requires a New Approach to US Science and Technology

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, discusses the need for a new approach to US science and technology (S&T). Over the last several decades, there have been organizational and process changes to the US science and technology enterprise. Such changes include the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as new US leadership in scientific research and development. Gerstein asserts that a makeover – based on a coherent plan – of the US S&T enterprise is needed to improve economic prosperity and national security.

Billions Spent on Coronavirus Fight, But What Happens Next?

Thus far, Congress has allocated billions of dollars to help state and local public health departments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic recedes, these funds may also dry up, leaving many public health departments with meager budgets yet again. Rolling back funding will leave communities – and the nation – unprepared for another health crisis, a lesson we should have learned well from the lingering pandemic. Dr. Mysheika Roberts, a health commissioner in Ohio, points out that more funding is needed consistently, not as a surge once an emergency has already started. According to Trust for America’s Health, money for public health emergency preparedness was cut nearly in half between the 2003 and 2021 fiscal years, accounting for inflation. Democratic US Senator Patty Murray of Washington leads several lawmakers aiming to “end the boom-bust cycle with legislation that would eventually provide $4.5 billion annually in core public health funding.”

How Safe Are You from COVID When You Fly?

A new interactive created by The New York Times details how air circulates in an aircraft. Dr. Nereyda Sevilla, graduate of the GMU Biodefense PhD Program, focused her dissertation on the transmission and risks of airplane-borne infectious diseases. Sevilla’s research analyzed the impact of air travel on the spread of pneumonic plague, a disease with a high mortality rate. Her results indicate that transmission via air travel depends on the type of disease, specifically, its duration of illness. Nereyda makes the following recommendations: (1) expand the definition of close contact on aircraft, (2) require health contact information with all plane tickets purchases, (3) expand self-sanitizing measures, (4) improve travel alerts and advisory notices during the ticket sales process, (5) perform temperature checks on a limited and random basis, and (6) improve crisis communication. Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, points out that passengers may also be exposed to the virus in airport terminals, where crowding makes social distancing quite difficult.

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