Pandora Report: 10.15.2021

This week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan shared a statement in regard to the annual report for the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the 26 proposed members of the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The Schar School will be hosting virtual open houses for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 21 October and 16 November at 6:30 PM EST!

New Book – The Molecularisation of Security: Medical Countermeasures, Stockpiling and the Governance of Biological Threats

The Molecularisation of Security: Medical Countermeasures, Stockpiling and the Governance of Biological Threats by Christopher Long investigates the way that the molecular sciences are shaping contemporary security practices in relation to the governance of biological threats. In response to biological threats, such as pandemics and bioterrorism, governments around the world have developed a range of new security technologies, called medical countermeasures, to protect their populations. This book argues that the molecular sciences’ influence has been so great that security practices have been molecularised. Focusing on the actions of international organizations and governments in the past two decades, this book identifies two contrasting conceptions of the nature or inherent workings of molecular life as driving this turn. On the one hand, political notions of insecurity have been shaped by the contingent or random nature of molecular life. On the other, the identification of molecular life’s constant biological dynamics supports and makes possible the development and stockpiling of effective medical countermeasures. This study is one of the few to take seriously the conceptual implications that the detailed empirical workings of biotechnology have on security practices today. Get your copy here.

The São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health

Humanity, and indeed all of life on Earth, is at a crossroads. Over the past several decades, the scale of human impacts on Earth’s natural systems has increased exponentially to the point where it exceeds our planet’s capacity to absorb our wastes or provide the resources we are using. The result is a vast and accelerating transformation and degradation of nature. This includes not only global climate change but also global scale pollution of air, water, and soil; degradation of our planet’s forests, rivers, coastal, and marine systems; and the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

The core insight of planetary health is that these disruptions and degradations of natural systems are a clear and urgent threat not only to the web of life but to humanity itself. The scale of our own environmental impacts is threatening our nutrition and mental health, increasing exposure to infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases, and driving population displacement and conflict. On our current trajectory, we can no longer safeguard human health and wellbeing.

The São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health is a global call to action from the planetary health community charting a path forward to support a more equitable and resilient post-pandemic world. The Declaration’s cross-cutting recom­mendations were drafted during the 2021 Planetary Health Annual Meeting and Festival in São Paulo, Brazil, concluding with a global consultation of nearly 350 participants from more than 70 countries supported by the United Nations Development Programme.

Statement by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on the Global Health Security Agenda Annual Report

This week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan shared a statement in regard to the annual report for the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA):

“Over the past two years, the world has learned through hardship and tragedy just how dangerous and disruptive a threat to our global health security can be. More than 4.5 million people around the world have died from the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economy is still struggling to recover. That’s why the Biden-Harris Administration has put global health security back at the top of the US national security agenda—to defeat this pandemic and to invest in strengthening health systems globally so that we are better prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to the next global health threat.

Today, we are releasing the annual report, “Strengthening Health Security Across the Globe: Progress and Impact of United States Government Investments in the Global Health Security Agenda,” which details our progress and impact helping countries build health security capacity through the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) in fiscal year 2020. We are bringing a whole-of-government effort to address global health as a national security imperative, and this report describes how GHSA investments have been critical in advancing the COVID-19 response, and outlines our strategic approach for assisting countries to meet specific targets.

Initially, the GHSA was launched as a 5-year effort that began in 2014, but the success of the program and the incredible global need resulted in another 5-year plan, “GHSA 2024.” GHSA 2024 introduced the bold target of more than 100 countries completing a transparent evaluation of health security capacity, performing planning and resource mobilization to address their gaps, and implementing activities to improve their capacity. This Administration is committed to supporting and strengthening GHSA in the years ahead, and we will continue to use our partner country investments and technical expertise to help achieve the GHSA target.

Improving the capabilities of individual countries and our shared capacity to take on infectious disease threats has never been more important. The United States will continue to work expeditiously to end this pandemic, including by continuing to donate vaccine doses and drive efforts to vaccinate the world, and rally the world to build back better to prevent the next pandemic. It’s going to take ambitious actions to ensure sustained global financing and political leadership, but we can do it. We can invest in saving lives now and creating a more secure and healthy future. The GHSA is a vital part of that work.”

Read the report here.

Public Notice of Proposed New Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) Members

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the 26 proposed members of the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The SAGO will advise WHO on technical and scientific considerations regarding the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential, and will be composed of a wide range of experts acting in their personal capacity. SAGO will also guide WHO on next steps for understanding the SARS-CoV-2 origins. The proposed members hail from all over the world, and have expertise in a variety of fields, including epidemiology, pathology, microbiology, virology, and genomics. The full list of proposed members can be found here.

An editorial in Science, “Preparing for Disease X,” highlights the importance of the SAGO in its mission to “advise the WHO on developing a framework to define comprehensive studies on the origins of such pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2—information that is essential for developing policies and enhancing preparedness to reduce the possibility of future zoonotic spillover events (transmission of a pathogen from animals to humans) and the chance that those events become major outbreaks.” Read the editorial here.

Biological Weapons

False Allegations of Biological-Weapons Use from Putin’s Russia

Milton Leitenberg, an expert in arms control and weapons of mass destruction, published an article, “False allegations of biological-weapons use from Putin’s Russia,” in The Nonproliferation Review this week. From 1949 until 1988, the Soviet Union conducted a nearly continuous campaign of false allegations of biological-weapon (BW) use by the United States. In 1995, senior Russian military officials revived this pattern of false allegations, which continues to the present day. Russian officials amplified the campaign after the US government funded the transformation of former Soviet BW facilities in the Commonwealth of Independent States under the Nunn–Lugar program. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China in January 2020 prompted a very greatly expanded Russian-government BW-related disinformation effort. This paper aims to present a reasonably comprehensive account of these activities and to assess their significance. The Russian government under President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated open disdain for both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Read Leitenberg’s article here.

Remarks to United Nations First Committee

Ambassador Bonnie Denise Jenkins, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, gave remarks to the United Nations First Committee regarding the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC):

“The United States remains committed to leading the way on arms control and addressing complex global security challenges.  As President Biden said, we have a national security imperative and moral responsibility to manage and eventually eliminate the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.  The extension of New START was the beginning of our effort to resume a leadership role on arms control and nonproliferation.  We are now entering an era of relentless diplomacy, as demonstrated by our Strategic Stability Dialogue with Russia, that is focused on building a stable, predictable foundation for the future of arms control.

We must acknowledge that our current strategic environment is one of increased geopolitical tension and competition.  In that context, the United States will sponsor two resolutions this session: the Compliance with Non-Proliferation, Arms Limitation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments and Advancing responsible State behavior in cyberspace in the context of international security. Both address an essential element of international peace and security and their adoption would strengthen confidence in international norms.

We are also cognizant that some nations are pursuing policies to undermine the international rules-based order.  The international institutions that we have built over the past several decades are being undercut by autocratic regimes that seek to foster instability to the detriment of us all.  These regimes also pose new nuclear dangers that remind us of the importance of preventing nuclear war, avoiding nuclear arms races, and stopping the further spread of nuclear weapons.

And regrettably, the challenges we face include threats posed by other weapons of mass destruction.  We continue to witness the repeated and abhorrent use of chemical weapons in defiance of long-standing norms and international legal obligations, including the poisoning of Mr. Aleksey Navalny on Russian territory, and the Syrian Arab Republic’s use of chemical weapons.  We must steadfastly call out offenders and hold those who use chemical weapons accountable. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to prevent future outbreaks – whether natural, accidental, or deliberate in origin. We will therefore take action to break the two-decade deadlock over strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention.  At the upcoming Review Conference, we must bring the Convention into the 21st century.  The United States will propose that BWC States adopt and implement specific measures to strengthen the BWC in key areas and take steps to intensively explore measures to strengthen implementation and promote compliance.”

Statement on Biological Weapons UN General Assembly First Committee

Dr. Filippa Lentzos from King’s College London gave a statement on biological weapons to the United Nations General Assembly First Committee that calls for “reaffirming commitments to the BWC and the Geneva Protocol, and reporting on measures taken to implement and strengthen BWC provisions.” Given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on health, society, and the economy, Lentzos urges the First Committee delegations to “seriously consider how to make the broader biological disarmament architecture more fit for purpose in today’s world.” A growing number of high biocontainment laboratories around the world are studying lethal viruses and preparing against unknown pathogens. According to Lentzos, “more countries are expected to build these labs in the wake of COVID-19” and “high risk and gain-of-function research with coronaviruses and other zoonotic pathogens with pandemic potential is likely to increase.” Scientific and clinical work on pathogens is critical to public health, biomedical advancements, and the prevention of disease; however, “surges in the number of labs and expansion in high-risk research carried out within them exacerbate safety and security risks.” Lentzos encourages the First Committee delegations to seriously and constructively consider the proposals already on the table for “how to evolve the biological disarmament architecture to uphold its central role in preventing the misuse of biology for hostile purposes.” Read Lentzos’ full statement here.

Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of the People’s Republic of China and the Russia Federation on Strengthening the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction

The Russian Federation and China issued a joint statement reaffirming “their conviction that the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC) is essential as a pillar of the international peace and security, and their determination to safeguard the authority and effectiveness of the Convention.” According to the statement, “the Russian Federation and China reiterate the need that the BWC should be fully complied with and further strengthened, including through its institutionalization and the adoption of a legally binding protocol to the Convention with effective verification mechanism, as well as through regular consultations and cooperation in resolving any issues related to the implementation of the Convention.” The two nations “call upon the BWC States Parties to continue joint efforts towards strengthening the Convention on a secure, legally binding basis.” Read the full joint statement here.


The Origin of COVID-19: Evidence Piles Up, But the Jury’s Still Out

Evidence related to the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is “piling up,” but a definitive answer remains elusive. Despite investigations by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US intelligence community, how the COVID-19 pandemic emerged is still uncertain. A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists highlights how the mounting circumstantial evidence supports either the theory that the virus emerged from a natural spillover or the theory that a laboratory leak introduced the virus is dependent upon who you ask. Research is showing the spillover of animal coronaviruses may be common and viruses identified in nature have had striking similarity to SARS-CoV-2, facts that may support the natural emergence theory. But, on the flip side, supporters of the lab leak theory point a finger at a research proposal submitted to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2018 that would have included WIV as a “key player in that multimillion-dollar effort to study bat viruses.” Another report emphasized the “extent to which genetic engineering on bat coronavirus was being done in Wuhan.”

Addressing Biocrises After COVID-19: Is Deterrence an Option?

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked discussion about the “potential dangers of biological weapons and biological terrorism.” Al Mauroni, the Director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, discusses his insights on the potential for deterrence against biological threats. Michael Mazaar defines deterrence as “the practice of discouraging or restraining someone … from taking unwanted actions, such as an armed attack;” the idea is to “stop or prevent an action from occurring.” According to Mauroni, the “efficacy of deterrence against biological threats depends, of course, on what the biological threat is.” The term “biological threat” is a catch-all that encompasses natural disease outbreaks, deliberate biological incidents, and accidental releases. Given that deterrence requires a “reasoning actor, …one cannot deter natural disease outbreaks or accidents at biological research laboratories as they have no human actor with malign intent to cause harm.” Deterrence against biological weapons attacks is also problematic because of “technological challenges involved with biodefense.” Deterring a terrorist from using a bioweapon is tricky, but “terrorist organizations can be deterred by threats of retaliation.” Mauroni highlights that for deterrence to be effective, “there must be communication between the defender and attacker as to expectations and consequences, and it requires the accurate perception of both to maintain stability and a balance of power.” In sum, a deterrence by denial strategy for countering biological threats will not succeed due to the “disparity between the significant number of biological warfare agents and hundreds of unprotected US cities and available defensive countermeasures.” Therefore, the US should “retain deterrence by punishment as its primary approach to discouraging deliberate biological attacks.”

How COVAX Failed on Its Promise to Vaccinate the World

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access – COVAX – is a global initiative working toward at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, and it is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization (WHO). Unfortunately, COVAX has not lived up to its promise to vaccinate the world. While wealthy nations are offering boosters to their populations, “98% of people in low-income countries remain unvaccinated.” COVAX has contributed 5% of all vaccines administered globally and just announced it would not make 2021 target of 2 billion doses. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and STAT reviewed confidential internal documents and spoke with officials from more over two dozen countries. This examination found that many countries are struggling to get information from COVAX personnel and have been “left in the dark over when, if ever, deliveries would arrive.” Other concerns include late supply shipments and the sidelining of organizations that represent the needs of poorer nations. A review of COVAX highlighted the “insufficient inclusion and meaningful engagement of low- and middle-income countries, civil society organizations and community representatives.” So far, the initiative has delivered 330 million doses and now plans to distribute 1.1 billion more in the next three months.

NIH Bat Coronavirus Grant Report Was Submitted More Than Two Years Late

A progress report that covered details of US-funded research on bat coronaviruses in China was more than two years overdue.  EcoHealth Alliance is a US-based non-profit that works on research related to preventing pandemics and promoting conservation in hotspot regions across the globe. The report ultimately “described the group’s work from June 2017 to May 2018, which involved creating new viruses using different parts of existing bat coronaviruses and inserting them into humanized mice in a lab in Wuhan, China.” The very late submission of was considered highly unusually, but “neither the NIH nor the EcoHealth Alliance offered an explanation for the date of the report.” The EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), longtime partners, have “come under intense scrutiny in the search for the pandemic’s origins.” Both entities are at the “center of the lab-origin hypothesis, the idea that the coronavirus could have emerged through a lab accident, the collection and storage of thousands of bat coronavirus samples, or through divisive research that makes viruses more transmissible in order to study how they evolve.”

Lessons Learned from FEMA’s Initial Response to COVID-19

During the initial months of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) COVID-19 response, the Nation faced dramatic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare personnel as hospitals experienced an unprecedented demand for ventilators to treat patients. The objective of the audit by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was to determine how effectively FEMA supported and coordinated Federal efforts to distribute PPE and ventilators in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA worked closely with the US Department of Health and Human Services and other Federal agencies to facilitate the shipment of PPE and ventilators. However, the magnitude of the global event exposed weaknesses in FEMA’s resource request system and allocation processes. Specifically, WebEOC — the system FEMA used to process resource requests including those for PPE and ventilators — contained unreliable data to inform allocation decisions and ensure requests were accurately adjudicated. This occurred because FEMA did not develop controls to validate requests and prevent incomplete, inaccurate, or duplicate data entries; nor did FEMA ensure WebEOC users received training on proper use of the system. In addition, although FEMA developed a process to allocate the limited supply of ventilators, it did not have a similarly documented process for PPE. Finally, FEMA did not have strategic guidance clearly outlining the roles and responsibilities used to lead the Federal response. FEMA’s decision to prioritize ongoing pandemic response efforts without updating its written guidance and strategic plans hindered FEMA’s coordination efforts.

To its credit, FEMA evaluated its COVID-19 response operations, identifying similar key findings and recommendations aimed at improving current and future responses, including making updates to its WebEOC system. Read the report here.


Schar School Open Houses

The Schar School will be hosting virtual open houses for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 21 October and 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

Combating Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats

On 20 October, the Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Security is hosting a webinar: Combating Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that accurate and timely health-related information is crucial to mounting an effective response to a public health crisis. Contradictory messaging, misinformation, and undermining of public health experts have reduced the trust in public health responders, increased belief in false medical cures, and politicized public health measures aimed at curbing transmission of the disease. As can be seen in setbacks during the COVID-19 response, health-related misinformation and disinformation can lead to more infections, deaths, disruption, and disorganization of the effort. Speakers include: Anita Cicero from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Imran Ahmed from Center for Countering Digital Hate; Dr. Tara Kirk Sell from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; and Alexandra Veitch from Americas and Emerging Markets at YouTube. Register here.

Saving Sisyphus: Course Corrections for National Biodetection

In its 2015 report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense addressed inadequacies of BioWatch, the Department of Homeland Security environmental biodetection program. Established in 2003, the federal government intended for BioWatch to provide early warning of biological attacks on major metropolitan areas. However, after nearly two decades of operation, the system is ineffective. There is little evidence that the system effectively detects pathogens of interest, and even if it did, pathogen detection turnaround time is too slow for the government to effectively respond to any actual biological attack. If the federal government continues to spend more taxpayer money on next generation biodetection systems, a reassessment of current efforts is necessary.

Join in on 2 November at 10 AM EST for an in-person meeting of the Commission, Saving Sisyphus: Course Corrections for National Biodetection, to provide a better understanding of challenges facing federal biodetection programs, public and private advancements in environmental biodetection technology, and mission requirements for 21st Century biodetection capabilities. More details will be available here.

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