Pandora Report: 07.02.2021

This week’s Pandora Report is coming in hot, with the latest news and analysis on COVID-19, cyberbiosecurity, nuclear negotiations, and terrorism. Remember to observe the 4th of July safely–emergency room personnel have faced enough challenges recently, let’s all give them a break and celebrate responsibly.

Biodefense Alumni on Innovation, Nuclear Security, and Biological Threats

Biodefense alumni aren’t letting the heat get them down—they’ve published several recent pieces on a range of topics. Dan Gerstein analyzes the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which considers new approaches and investments to increase U.S. innovation and competitiveness. He concludes that while there is much to like in this legislation, as written there are several missed opportunities. Rebecca Earnhardt assesses President Biden’s posture on nuclear security and argues that civil society has a critical role to play by holding policymakers accountable, generating innovative ideas, promoting dialogue, and assisting with nuclear security implementation. Yong-Bee Lim examines U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories’ role in addressing biological threats, as well as the biosecurity challenges they face.

The Latest on COVID-19

The WHO has released new guidance urging everyone—including those fully vaccinated—to wear face masks as we continue to learn more about the Delta variant. However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has so far held off on recommending mask-wearing for vaccinated individuals in the US, saying that vaccinated people “are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States.” Dr. Walensky acknowledges that the WHO is issuing guidance on a worldwide scale, and she does not criticize the WHO (or local U.S. policymakers such as those in Los Angeles) for recommending mask-wearing out of an abundance of caution. You can track the CDC’s latest data on COVID-19 variants here.

Vaccination continues to be your best defense against COVID-19 infection. Recent studies show that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are effective against several variants of concern, including Delta. Biodefense alumnus Saskia Popescu emphasizes the importance of vaccination in a recent New York Times piece: “I encourage people who are vaccinated to trust in the vaccines but be cognizant that new variants will continue to occur where transmission exists.” You can hear much more from Dr. Popescu at the GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop coming up this month—see Events below for more information. And learn more about the lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19 about developing vaccines during a pandemic here.

Exacerbated Inequality During the Pandemic

While COVID-19 is a pressing public health concern, the pandemic has wide-ranging implications that will likely be felt for years after we’ve all gotten the jab and removed our masks. For example, the U.S. has experienced its biggest drop in life expectancy since World War II. This drop is attributable not only to COVID-19 deaths but also to interrupted access to healthcare during the pandemic. Whether that’s delayed preventative checkups, less frequent doctor’s visits to manage chronic diseases, or an inability to get help for addiction or mental health struggles that have become more prevalent during the pandemic, Americans have been unable to access—or have felt unsafe accessing—the healthcare they need. This disparity and others have hit minority communities particularly hard. If you are interested in learning more about systemic racism and U.S. health security during the pandemic, the journal Health Security recently published a special issue on the topic. And GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop faculty member Nicholas Evans argues that “the story of equity in COVID-19…is a story of failure.”

COVID-19 Highlighted the Need for ASPR Reforms

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is making the case for reforming and strengthening the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The ASPR is the principal advisor to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on federal public health and medical preparedness and response for public health emergencies, with responsibilities for medical surge capacity and medical countermeasures. Senator Burr argues that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant gaps in preparedness and response that must be addressed. He makes several recommendations to do so: First, promoting strong, effective leadership and coordination within HHS and across the interagency, particularly with FEMA and DoD. Second, expanding, strengthening, and sustaining public-private partnership in medical supply chain, health care system, and medical countermeasure sectors. And third, leveraging innovation, capacity, and capability improvements to encourage innovation not only in times of crisis, but in a preparedness context as well.

Biosafety, Biosecurity, and COVID-19 Origins

Biosecurity experts are urging Congress to investigate a theory that SARS-CoV-2 (the causative agent of COVID-19) leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Of particular concern are so-called gain of function (GoF) experiments, which alter pathogens’ transmissibility, pathogenesis, or host range. Advocates of increased oversight are concerned that these experiments could lead to future pandemics with pathogens that have been engineered to be more lethal or transmissible to humans. Biodefense Program Director Gregory Koblentz believes that Congress needs to take a more active role in overseeing GoF research, rather than merely paying attention when something goes wrong. Dr. Koblentz is particularly concerned with China’s biosafety system, “because we don’t see the same kind of mechanisms for reporting and accountability in the Chinese biosafety system as we see in the U.S. and other countries.”

Milton Leitenberg, a senior research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, reviews China’s history of obfuscation from the 2002 SARS outbreak (SARS-CoV) to COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), as well as the World Health Organization’s weak response when presented with disinformation. Through this lens, he then examines the evidence in the ongoing debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origins. Leitenberg argues it is plausible that a scientist at one of the Wuhan virology institutes contracted a laboratory acquired infection while working with bat coronaviruses because the institute “had been carrying out GoF research using bat coronaviruses and producing chimeric viruses using seamless, undetectable, molecular genetic technology.” This fact, coupled with the Chinese government’s relentless disinformation campaign regarding SARS-CoV-2, leads Leitenberg to the conclusion that “a government that is not involved in a massive cover-up of some kind would not indulge in such behavior.” The article linked above requires registration on CBRNE World to view, but registration is free.

Interested in learning more? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has put together a list of their best pieces on biosafety and biosecurity, featuring many familiar faces to regular readers of the Pandora Report. Check it out here.

New Tool: The Dual-Use Quickscan

The Netherlands Biosecurity Office has just launched the Dual-Use Quickscan tool to identify potential dual-use aspects in research and raise awareness among researchers. Specifically, researchers working with microorganisms can use this tool to assess potential dual-use risks by answering 15 questions. These questions were informed by the scientific literature and encompass three categories: characteristics of the biological agent, knowledge and technology about the agent, and the consequences of misuse. The Quickscan can be embedded in a broader system of biosecurity and dual-use monitoring and awareness within organizations.

Cybersecurity and the Intersection with WMD Threats

For years, government officials, researchers, and policymakers have claimed that cyber threat warnings are blinking red. Recent headlines certainly seem to indicate that we’re under-prepared for many types of cyber-attacks, targeting critical infrastructure, U.S. government data, healthcare systems, and others. Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long and Kyle McPhee review the most pressing infrastructure-related vulnerabilities, many of which are related to cybersecurity. Some have argued that cyber weapons should be considered weapons of mass destruction (WMD) along with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (CBRN). However, Shane Smith, senior policy fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, proposes that cyber weapons should not be considered WMD because cyber weapons are significantly different from CBRN weapons in terms of their lethality, mechanisms, historical use, and perceived utility, as well as proliferation challenges. However, Smith identifies several areas of convergence between cyber weapons and traditional WMD that should be considered when developing strategies to counter these threats. For example, cyber weapons could be used against nuclear or chemical plants; against nuclear command, control, and communication systems; or to amplify the consequences of a WMD attack. On the other hand, “cyber weapons could be valuable counterproliferation tools to disrupt or disable adversary WMD programs.”

Cyberbiosecurity is a relatively new concept that “encompasses cybersecurity, cyber-physical security and biosecurity as applied to biological and biomedical-based systems.” The important interrelationship between cybersecurity and biosecurity has been steadily gaining more attention since 2014, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science published a study that, in part, examined security issues related to big data and its relationship to the bioeconomy. Recently, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense held a virtual meeting to discuss current and future cyberbiosecurity threats and vulnerabilities, opportunities and solutions to address these threats, and the federal government’s role in doing so. You can view a recording of the event here.  

For an analysis of the latest threats related to cyberbiosecurity, you may be interested in Threats, Risks and Vulnerabilities at the Intersection of Digital, Bio & Health. This article assesses current and emerging cyberbiosecurity threats, risks, and knowledge gaps, and proposes ways for the public and private sectors to work together to promote legitimate research and development while maintaining an appropriate posture against malicious actors. The article recognizes the complexity of the cyberbiosecurity risk space, encompassing several new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and 3D printing. Multi-disciplinary partnerships will be essential for mounting an effective response that does not overly burden scientific research. Check out the article for the author’s eight recommendations to begin addressing this complex issue.

Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration achieved a nuclear policy win with the extension of the New START treaty through 2026. Secretary of State Blinken has now turned his attention to reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. The U.S. and France have attempted to increase pressure on Iran by warning that time to return to the nuclear deal is running out, while President Biden declared that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on his watch.

A number of issues complicate negotiations, including Iran’s presidential election (which just concluded) and recent U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting facilities used by Iran-linked militia groups. A War on the Rocks piece assesses the assumption that Iran wants to rejoin the deal. The authors conclude that the nuclear deal is likely to be revived, based on Iran’s actions as well as the benefits of rejoining the deal. However, Iran-watchers should keep an eye on the new, more conservative Iranian’s president’s approach, key negotiating demands, and Iran’s economic trajectory going forward.

A National Strategy for Domestic Terrorism

The Biden administration recently released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The strategy utilizes the intelligence community’s domestic extremist threat categories: racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists, animal rights/environmental violent extremists, abortion-related violent extremists, and all other domestic terrorism threats. (Clint Watts provides a breakdown of the acronyms du jour in this space, as well as an analysis of the hits and misses in this strategy.)

The strategy is organized around four pillars:

  1. Understand and share domestic terrorism-related information
  2. Prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence
  3. Disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity
  4. Confront long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.

Reception to the strategy has been fairly positive, although extremism experts have pointed out weaknesses, areas for improvement, and potential challenges.

Recently Released Resources on Terrorism

The European Union just released its Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, which provides data on terrorist attacks as well as terrorism-related arrests from 2020. The report highlights several persistent trends, such as youth radicalization, lone attackers who use unsophisticated attack methods, and the internet’s role in recruitment and radicalization. Based on reported data, the number of terrorist attacks has remained stable, though the number of terrorist arrests have dropped significantly, likely because of a shift in law enforcement priorities and resources during the pandemic. Interestingly, the report finds that COVID-19 “did not fundamentally modify core terrorist modi operandi;” while extremists incorporated the pandemic into their narratives, there is from this dataset no evidence that it significantly impacted terrorist operations.

The Financial Action Task Force’s newly released report on Ethnically or Racially Motivated Terrorism Financing looks at extreme right wing groups’ fundraising techniques. While extreme right wing terrorist attacks are largely carried out by self-funded lone actors, FATF’s report attempts to map how extremist groups make and move their money. The most common money-raising methods are donations (crowd-funded and private), group membership fees, commercial activities (merchandise sales, real estate ventures, etc.), and criminal activities. Much of the funding, therefore, comes from licit sources. The report concludes by highlighting the numerous challenges associated with addressing extreme right wing group financing, such as different legal regimes for combating this type of terrorism and inconsistent national designations of extreme right wing groups. Increasing transnational links among these groups necessitates more attention on these issues. However, the report raises far more questions than it answers, and much more work is needed on this topic.

Finally, those interested in counterterrorism will find a recently released free resource incredibly helpful: the Handbook of Terrorism Prevention and Preparedness covers a diverse range of topics, from radicalization to terrorist financing to consequence management and much more.

Event: Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

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