Pandora Report: 9.10.2021

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The Biden administration proposed a sweeping pandemic preparedness plan. US-Russian cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation has come to an inflection point, and each state must decide whether the challenges in their bilateral relationship make it impossible to collaborate.

20th Anniversary of 9/11 & Amerithrax

Tomorrow, 11 September 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which cost the lives of nearly 3,000 people and injured 6,000 more. The following weeks in 2001 were plagued by the anthrax letter attacks that killed five people and sickened another 17.

Michael Morrell, former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and current Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government, served as President Bush’s CIA briefer during the 9/11 attacks. It was during that morning’s briefing that the attacks began, which were initially suspected as accidental due to severe weather conditions. Morrell remembers realizing that al-Qa`ida and bin Laden were behind these acts of terrorism once the second plane hit the Twin Towers. Morrell’s 9/11 story continued until the death of bin Laden under the Obama administration. Returning to the present, Morrell shared that his greatest worry remains weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which could be deployed by a nation or non-state group, such as a terrorist organization. Biological weapons are among the WMDs for which Morrell fears could wreak terrible havoc.

Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) released an analysis on the response and limitations of the public health system, Public Health Preparedness: Progress and Challenges Since September 11, 2001. A component of this report “highlights the urgent need for federal, state, and local policymakers to prioritize the nation’s health security as we work toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing for extreme weather, the health impacts of climate change, future pandemics, and other emerging threats.” The President and CEO of TFAH stated, “The 20th anniversary of September 11th is an important milestone to mark the progress we have made in the past two decades: we have built a public health preparedness enterprise from the ground up, including a dedicated public health emergency workforce. But we must make additional and sustained investments in public health infrastructure and workforce, and we must ensure equity is at the center of preparedness, response, and recovery efforts.” TFAH recommends several policy actions, such as investment in modernizing public health data systems and equipping public health and government leaders to deliver effective public communications and counter misinformation.

Moving On & Up

Congratulations to Diandra Coleman and Minh Ly for starting new jobs in the areas of global health security and biosecurity. Diandra, a student in the Biodefense MS program, is starting a new job as a program coordinator with Health Security Partners, a nonprofit international development organization that is dedicated to building local capacity to improve health security around the world. As program coordinator, Diandra will report to the Executive Director and be responsible for supporting HSP’s education, collaboration and stewardship projects in Asia and the Middle East. Minh Ly, Biodefense MS ’21, has joined the DC office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. CNS is the largest nongovernmental organization in the United States devoted exclusively to research and training on nonproliferation issues. In his new role as a Research Associate, Minh will be focusing on the implications of advanced biotechnologies for national and international security. 

HyunJung Kim (Henry Kim), Biodefense PhD ’21, has been appointed a research fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies Korea (CSPS-K). CSPS-K is the South Korean branch of Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS) at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His work at CSPS-K will focus on the use of unapproved medical countermeasures in response to public health emergencies and the history of biological warfare.

A Weapons of Mass Destruction Strategy for the 21st Century

An article co-authored by Zachary Kallenborn, a Policy Fellow at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, highlights the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to the US, and points out the limited interagency collaboration and lack of a common approach across the US government to countering the development and use of WMDs. Over time, the concept of WMDs, in general, has evolved to include not only lethal chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive weapons (CBRNE), but also non-lethal chemical and biological weapons. Today, the debate continues regarding the inclusion of nerve agents and emerging infectious diseases. Yet, the US government has yet to develop a standardized definition of WMDs, let alone a meaning that adequately accounts for 21st century challenges that do not fit into the traditional CBRNE model. For example, “the public health and WMD communities clash over the extent to which bioterrorism and natural pandemics should fall under the scope of WMD response.” Additionally, the norms against the use of WMDs are under threat in recent years with certain states deploying banned weapons, like Russia’s use of Novichok nerve agents in attempted assassinations. Technological leaps are changing the game, “making it easier for state and non-state actors to acquire, enhance, and use WMD.” Synthetic biology enables the development of bioweapons, drones offer a novel delivery system, and 3D printing makes components easier to manufacture. Today, the US government has three strategies to counter WMDs that do not adequately account for the dynamic threat landscape. The authors urge the US to develop a “guiding strategy to integrate activities aimed at ensuring non- and counter-proliferation of WMD across national security agencies.” This strategy should “recognize the common challenges WMD pose as a class — the need to reinforce international norms, identify and close off proliferation pathways, and punish egregious use of such weapons — but also appreciate the challenges unique to particular classes of weapons, such as the use of chemical weapons in assassination attacks.” Read the article here.

Progress on Biorisk Management in Iraq

On September 3, Mahdi Al-Jewari, senior chief biologist of the Iraqi National Monitoring Authority for Non-Proliferation (INMA), presented a working paper on Iraq’s National Biorisk Management Committee (NBMC) as part of a Meeting of Experts session on national implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The working paper describes the role, objectives and structure of the NBMC, its international partnerships, achievements so far, and remaining challenges. Mr. Al-Jewari and Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, described the origin and evolution of biorisk management in Iraq in this 2016 article

Call for Emergency Action to Limit Global Temperature Increases, Restore Biodiversity, and Protect Health

The United Nations General Assembly in September 2021 will bring countries together at a critical time for marshalling collective action to tackle the global environmental crisis. They will meet again at the biodiversity summit in Kunming, China, and at the climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Ahead of these pivotal meetings, the editors of health journals worldwide call for urgent action to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5°C, halt the destruction of nature, and protect health. Health is already being harmed by global temperature increases and the destruction of the natural world, a state of affairs health professionals have been bringing attention to for decades. The science is unequivocal: a global increase of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse. Despite the world’s necessary preoccupation with Covid-19, we cannot wait for the pandemic to pass to rapidly reduce emissions. Urgent, society-wide changes must be made and will lead to a fairer and healthier world. The editors of health journals call for governments and other leaders to act, marking 2021 as the year that the world finally changes course. Read the article here.

End of an Era: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Nonproliferation

US-Russian cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation has reached an inflection point. Policy makers in both capitals must now decide whether the risks posed by the spread of nuclear weapons are great enough to merit their renewed engagement—or whether the challenges in their bilateral relationship make it impossible to collaborate in this vital sphere. The election of President Joseph R. Biden offers the potential for a more pragmatic US approach to nuclear cooperation with Russia—one aimed at reducing the mutual threats perceived by both countries. At the same time, however, both the Biden and Putin administrations will face significant domestic political opposition should they choose to revive their joint work in the nuclear sector and attempt to isolate it from other contentious issues that have plagued their relationship.

Recognizing these challenges, End of an Era: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Nonproliferation identifies nonproliferation challenges that merit US-Russian cooperation and provides suggestions about specific measures that might usefully be pursued. These suggestions are drawn from the seven case studies, which describe instances in which the United States and Russia previously have been able to find common ground, even during periods of considerable tension in their bilateral relationship. Building upon the editors’ 2018 publication, Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-proliferation, the present volume distills this history into lessons for contemporary policy makers, scholars, and students of US-Russia nuclear policy. While not a panacea, the recommendations offer practical opportunities to adopt more constructive US-Russia nuclear relations. Read End of an Era here.  

Russia’s Novel Weapons Systems: Military Innovation in the Post-Soviet Period

This article identifies the principal drivers of Russian military innovation involving five novel nuclear, conventional, or dual-capable delivery systems—Avangard, Burevestnik, Poseidon, Kinzhal, and Tsirkon—and analyzes the interplay between these drivers over the course of the innovation process. It does so by means of a structured, focused comparison of the five systems and their progression to date, distinguishing “innovation” from concepts like “invention” and “diffusion,” and defining the stages of an innovation life cycle. The article also distills prior research on Soviet weapons innovation and investigates its continued validity. The analysis finds external factors to be central in driving innovation, specifically Russian threat perceptions around (1) US missile-defense development and (2) the development of Western conventional warfighting capabilities. It also discusses the roles of a range of internal factors, including industry and high-level political support for specific systems, the availability of Soviet-legacy research and engineering initiatives, and the appeal of anticipated industrial and ancillary benefits from the development of specific systems. Cooperation between design bureaus and other industry players is also examined, as is the role of status considerations in driving innovation. Finally, the relative importance of individual factors in explaining innovation is shown to differ across the systems. The structured comparison identifies the continued validity of certain aspects of past studies on Soviet military innovation, while also bringing to light new insights about contemporary Russian weapons innovation. Read the article here.

Strengthening Global Health Security and Reforming the International Health Regulations

Since the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak emerged in late 2019, more than 623,000 people in the US and 4.4 million people worldwide are known to have died from COVID-19. The true death count is probably many times higher. More than 200 million more people around the world have been infected. The rapid spread of highly contagious variants is a grim signal that those numbers will continue to rise. Behind the daily reports are the momentous health, economic, and security challenges this crisis poses for the US and the rest of the world. The pandemic has revealed significant weaknesses in global health security. While working to end the COVID-19 pandemic as quickly as possible, leaders around the world must also marshal the resources and commitment to look beyond this pandemic and build much stronger global health security for the future. There are 4 critical components of an effective global health security system in a post-COVID world, which US government and global leaders must come together to pursue. First, global leaders must modernize essential global institutions, starting with the World Health Organization (WHO). Second, countries and institutions must strengthen international laws and norms, and agreements written at an earlier time may need to be revised. Third, the international community must mobilize sustained financing. Fourth, global leaders must strengthen global governance, with an emphasis on transparency and accountability. The authors offer several recommendations regarding amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR), such as establishing early warning triggers for action. Read the article here.

Apollo-Style Pandemic Preparedness Plan

Last week, the Biden administration announced a new biosecurity plan that is likened to the Apollo program of the late 1960s. This $65 billion proposal would be one of the largest investments in public health in American history and would “remake the nation’s pandemic preparedness infrastructure in the wake of Covid-19.” About $12 billion would be used to develop treatments for any known virus family and $5 billion would be for developing “diagnostics that the government would aim to make available within weeks of identifying a new biosecurity threat.” Dr. Beth Cameron describes this plan as a way to ensure that the US “has the capabilities it needs to operationalize [its response] when we see the first signs of an emerging outbreak that could have epidemic or pandemic potential.” The plan focuses on overhauling pandemic preparedness in the United States in five main areas: (1) transforming medical defenses, (2) ensuring situational awareness, (3) strengthening public health systems, (4) building core capabilities, and (5) managing the mission. Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD program, and Christine Parthemore assert that a “bold and innovative re-envisioning of how the United States and the global community address pandemic threats is long overdue.”

Early this year, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a report, The Apollo Program for Biodefense – Winning the Race Against Biological Threats, that outlines a path forward to tackle biological threats. According to the Commission, “the existential threat that the United States faces today from pandemics is one of the most pressing challenges of our time; and ending pandemics is more achievable today than landing on the moon was in 1961.” The Apollo Program for Biodefense encompasses four main goals: (1) implement the National Blueprint for Biodefense; (2) produce a National Biodefense Science and Technology Strategy; (3) produce a cross-cutting budget; and (4) appropriate multi-year funding. Interviewed experts for the Apollo Program report by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense include Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, an adjunct professor in the GMU Biodefense Graduate Program; and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program. Read the full report here.

Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House

Prospective students are invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and our academic programs, including the Biodefense Graduate Program. The online session will provide an overview of the master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. The open house will be on 14 September from 6:30-8 PM EDT. Register here.

Frontiers of Computing in Health and Society Symposium

George Mason University is organizing a two-day virtual symposium as part of the kick-off of a new thematic initiative to enhance diverse multidisciplinary research in computing, society, and healthcare, aligned with GMU’s new School of Computing. The two-day virtual “Frontiers of Computing in Health and Society” symposium will feature keynote talks, moderated panels, and lightning talk sessions organized around the broad themes of “AI, Social Justice, and Public Policy” (September 20) and “Computational Systems Biomedicine” (September 21). The conference is open to students, faculty, and the general public. The symposium will also be putting together “lightning talk” sessions on each of the two themes. Participants are encouraged to submit a short abstract on the registration page describing their research area for consideration for inclusion in one of these sessions. More information can be found here. Register here.  

Dual-Use Research Workshops

Identify biosecurity and biosafety risks in two real-world case studies! Many life sciences students graduate without ever learning the term “dual-use”. In this interactive workshop, led by iGEM alumni and members of the Safety and Security Committee, you will learn how to evaluate Dual Use Research of Concern and bring your biosecurity considerations to the next level.

Register here for 1 of 3 workshop sessions:

Wednesday September 15, 6:00-8:00 pm CEST

Thursday September 16, 12:00-2:00 pm CEST

Friday September 17, 7:00-9:00 am CEST

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