Pandora Report: 11.12.2021

Happy Veterans Day and thank you to all who served! COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated that the United States is vulnerable to biological threats of pandemic scale, and, unfortunately, this awareness has come at exceptionally high costs when calculated in lives lost and the severely compromised welfare of American citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to renewed discussion of biological weapons and whether bad actors — both nations and terrorists — have refocused their attention on developing them.

Meet the PhD Biodefense Student and Counterproliferation Advisor Who Writes Sci-Fi and Spy Thrillers

Fiction writers are often asked what inspires their ideas. In the case of this important plot point, in the new book Interstellar Angel (An Astral Heat Romance) by Laura Navarre, the light-bulb moment for the story came during a real-life biodefense PhD class about genetically modified pathogens. That’s where she cooked up in her mind the fictional Valyrensis novicida, which, in the story, eradicates exactly 88 percent of the Valyrians, who are the galaxy’s leading race. The ensuing turmoil across the galaxy causes a pangalactic race war.

The novel, the first of a series, debuted on Amazon’s LGBTQ+ Science Fiction bestseller list when it was released in October. In a bit of apparent family competitiveness, Laura’s “sinister twin sister” Nikki has published The Russian Obsession, one of a trio of espionage thrillers rooted in the realities of high-tech intelligence.

Interesting family, yes? But wait: There’s a twist. Laura and Nikki Navarre are actually one and the same. Those are the noms de plume of Laura Schmidt Denlinger, a senior counterproliferation advisor and a PhD student at the Schar School of Policy and Government’s groundbreaking biodefense program.

By day, Denlinger is a Department of Energy National Laboratories employee on a long-term rotation to a sister US. government agency where she advances cutting-edge cooperative threat reduction work. Once you know what she does for a living, the idea of wiping out 88 percent of a galaxy’s population as detailed in her fiction isn’t so far-fetched. Read more here.

BRIEFER: Key US Initiatives for Addressing Biological Threats Part 6

The Nolan Center, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, is releasing its sixth briefer in its series Key US Initiatives for Addressing Biological Threats, which focuses on the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, newly minted PhD from the Biodefense Graduate Program, was a co-author of this briefer. COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, has clearly demonstrated that the United States is vulnerable to biological threats of pandemic scale. Unfortunately, this awareness has come at exceptionally high costs when calculated in lives lost and the severely compromised welfare of American citizens.

However, the pandemic has also reinforced the aphorism that necessity is the mother of invention – shining a light on numerous examples of governments making the impossible possible. In the midst of COVID-19, one such example can be seen in the forward-thinking work conducted by DARPA. Through heavy focus and investment in 2012 in a program called ADEPT:PROTECT, DARPA was instrumental in exploring the use of messenger RNA (mRNA) as a platform to deliver “antibody-making instructions” against specific diseases: the very technology that the United States leveraged through the $40 billion Operation Warp Speed to rapidly accelerate the creation, testing, production, and distribution of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines around the globe.

As government agencies evaluate lessons from the ongoing pandemic, it is important to consider how to best leverage DARPA to address future biological threats and avoid strategic surprise. Further, it is important to delve into the organization itself in a bid to optimize its performance against rapidly-evolving biological threats of the future from natural and anthropogenic sources.

This is the focus of CSR’s sixth briefer in the series. In it, the authors highlight how DARPA has achieved past successes, and propose several recommendations to maximize the capabilities of DARPA for addressing biological threats:

  • Strong leadership that focuses on high-risk, high-reward research is necessary to lead DARPA in addressing the most pressing threats to national security and Servicemembers.
  • Have both top-down and bottom-up approaches with organizational structure.
  • Improve funding mechanisms and sources to best allocate resources for promising research.
  • Balance the high-churn that characterizes DARPA with extended timelines for DARPA Office Directors and Program Managers.

Read the sixth briefer here.

Biological Weapons in the “Shadow War”

Dr. Glenn Cross, an alumnus of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published an article in War on the Rocks about biological weapons. Do countries still need to worry about threats from biological weapons? The COVID-19 pandemic has led to renewed discussion of biological weapons and whether bad actors — both nations and terrorists — have refocused their attention on developing them. In a recent War on the Rocks article, Joseph Buccina, Dylan George, and Andy Weber argue that the “inadequate initial US response to COVID-19, coupled with new advances in biotechnology, could make biological weapons more appealing for US adversaries.” They add that China and Russia could use biological agents in a “low-boil” manner to undermine the United States as part of a “Shadow War,” a term first coined by Jim Sciutto, referring to a hybrid war, gray war, or non-linear war.

The specter of mass casualty biological weapons attacks — whether by nations or terrorists — is unrealistic. The United States should not overreact to the threat of biological weapons. Although the threat from biological weapons has not vanished, it is, in fact, at one of its lowest points since the Cold War’s end. Biological weapons are primarily a tool of assassination — largely for purposes of ensuring regime security in authoritarian states — and special forces operations. US policymakers should strengthen diplomatic and intelligence community efforts to protect the American people from this enduring — but manageable — threat. Read the article here.

The 2021 Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Code Red for a Healthy Future

The Lancet Countdown is an international collaboration that independently monitors the health consequences of a changing climate. Publishing updated, new, and improved indicators each year, the Lancet Countdown represents the consensus of leading researchers from 43 academic institutions and UN agencies. The 44 indicators of this report expose an unabated rise in the health impacts of climate change and the current health consequences of the delayed and inconsistent response of countries around the globe—providing a clear imperative for accelerated action that puts the health of people and planet above all else.

The 2021 report coincides with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), at which countries are facing pressure to realise the ambition of the Paris Agreement to keep the global average temperature rise to 1·5°C and to mobilise the financial resources required for all countries to have an effective climate response. These negotiations unfold in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic—a global health crisis that has claimed millions of lives, affected livelihoods and communities around the globe, and exposed deep fissures and inequities in the world’s capacity to cope with, and respond to, health emergencies. Yet, in its response to both crises, the world is faced with an unprecedented opportunity to ensure a healthy future for all. Read the report here.

CLIMATE CHANGE

2021 WHO Health and Climate Change Survey Report

This report provides a vital snapshot of the overall progress that governments have made in the field of health and climate change to date, as well as insight into what work remains in order to protect their populations from the most devastating health impacts of climate change. The health and climate change country survey is conducted every three years and in addition to tracking global progress, the national data are presented in the health and climate change country profiles. 95 countries participated in the 2021 survey.

The survey is sent to the national health authorities, who in collaboration with other relevant ministries and stakeholders, provide updated information on key areas including: leadership and governance, national vulnerability and adaptation assessments, emergency preparedness, disease surveillance, adaptation and resilience measures, climate and health finance, and mitigation in the health sector. Regular updates on key health and climate change indicators provide insight into the implementation of policies and plans, the status of assessments of health vulnerability and capacity to respond to climate change and better understand the barriers to achieving health adaptation and mitigation priorities.

The 2021 global survey report provides an update to the 2017/2018 survey, and was published at the COP26 UN climate conference in November 2021. Read the report here.

This Is What the World Looks Like If We Pass the Crucial 1.5 Degree Climate Threshold

One point five degrees Celsius is the metric heard most on the podiums at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this year. The hope is that limiting the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2021, the world will halt severe climate disruptions that would further exacerbate hunger, drought, and conflict. This is not a new goal. At the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris, there was a push for “industrialized countries to improve on the 2-degree Celsius goal held at the time, since wealthier nations are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution.” Scientists expect a number of problems if average global temperatures exceed the limit. The Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of Australia and massive enough to be viewable from space, would shrink tremendously. In fact, at 1.5 degrees Celsius, 70-90% of the world’s coral reefs could die off, and at 2 degrees Celsius, 99% will likely be lost. A hotter atmosphere will produce more rainfall and stronger storms. The UN’s climate research group predicts that sea levels could rise an additional one to three feet over the next 80 years.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

The Unvaccinated Drive COVID-19 Infections in the US

Winter is coming and COVID-19 infections are likely to increased among both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. But, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that there is “a significant difference between both groups across all age cohorts in the likeliness to become infected with the coronavirus.” Indeed, in August and September of this year, the infection rates per 100,000 individuals were 6-10 times higher among the unvaccinated compared with vaccinated people from the same age group. Further, hospitalization rates were 10-15 times higher for unvaccinated versus vaccinated people. Vaccination coverage in the US increases with the age group: 86% of individuals 65 years or older are vaccinated. The graph below from Statista shows the weekly rates of COVID-19 cases in certain age groups within the US based on vaccination status.

COVID-19 Misinformation is Ubiquitous: 78% of the Public Believes or is Unsure About At Least One False Statement, and Nearly a Third Believe At Least Four of Eight False Statements Tested

According to a new KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor report, over three-quarters of the US adult population believes or is uncertain about at least one of eight false statements regarding the COVID-19 pandemic or the COVID-19 vaccines. Sixty-four percent of unvaccinated adults either believe or are unsure about at least four of the eight false statements; among vaccinated adults, this drops to 19%. Almost half of Republicans believe or are unsure about four or more of the false statements, which is three times the figure for democrats. Sixty percent of adults say “they’ve heard that the government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths by counting deaths due to other factors and either believe it to be true (38%) or aren’t sure if it is true or false (22%).” Thirty-nine percent say “they’ve heard pregnant women should not get the COVID-19 vaccine and believe it to be true (17%) or aren’t sure (22%).” Finally, 31% say “they’ve heard that the vaccine has been shown to cause infertility and either believe it (8%) or aren’t sure if it’s true (23%).”

Rethinking Health Security After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed major challenges to existing systems of global health governance. Even countries considered leaders in health preparedness, notably the US and the UK, struggled to contain COVID-19 domestically and were unable to mount an effective international response. As a result, the world suffered over 4.4 million deaths and an estimated 4.4 per cent decline in global GDP in 2020 alone – the deepest global recession since the end of World War II. The economic and health impacts of the pandemic have, meanwhile, fallen disproportionately on the world’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 has therefore laid bare deep fissures in the current global health architecture and highlighted the need for urgent reform. One proposal for reducing the risk of future pandemics is to elevate public health as a national security priority. For decades, policymakers and experts have argued that the concept of national security should extend beyond state-centric, military-focused threats, to include infectious diseases and climate change. Accordingly, the US and UK governments, both erstwhile leaders in global health and biological preparedness, have committed to promoting health security as a framework for mitigating the threat of future pandemics. A health security approach, it has been argued, will increase attention, resources, and institutional capacity for dealing with health crises.

Yet the reflexive tendency to frame health risks in security terms has precluded serious examination of the assumptions and trade-offs underlying the health security paradigm. In this report, the authors contend that, while the security implications of pandemics are clear, the concept of health security distracts attention from the underlying determinants of health that exacerbate the effects of severe disease outbreaks and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Rather than adopting a securitised approach to infectious disease, COVID-19 should prompt world governments to focus on the wider determinants of health – such as universal health coverage and access to quality health care, among other health-related UN Sustainable Development Goals – as a way to ameliorate the impact of pandemics and other crises. The report challenges the following assumptions that undergird health security and proposes recommendations for an alternative approach. Read the report here.

How an Outbreak Became a Pandemic: A Chronological Analysis of Crucial Junctures and International Obligations in the Early Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Understanding the spread of SARS-CoV-2, how and when evidence emerged, and the timing of local, national, regional, and global responses is essential to establish how an outbreak became a pandemic and to prepare for future health threats. With that aim, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has developed a chronology of events, actions, and recommendations, from December, 2019, when the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in China, to the end of March, 2020, by which time the outbreak had spread extensively worldwide and had been characterised as a pandemic. Datapoints are based on two literature reviews, WHO documents and correspondence, submissions to the Panel, and an expert verification process. The retrospective analysis of the chronology shows a dedicated initial response by WHO and some national governments, but also aspects of the response that could have been quicker, including outbreak notifications under the International Health Regulations (IHR), presumption and confirmation of human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and, most importantly, the public health response of many national governments. The chronology also shows that some countries, largely those with previous experience with similar outbreaks, reacted quickly, even ahead of WHO alerts, and were more successful in initially containing the virus. Mapping actions against IHR obligations, the chronology shows where efficiency and accountability could be improved at local, national, and international levels to more quickly alert and contain health threats in the future. In particular, these improvements include necessary reforms to international law and governance for pandemic preparedness and response, including the IHR and a potential framework convention on pandemic preparedness and response. Read the article here.

How Trump’s Deal with Moderna Hampers the Global Vaccine Effort

Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a US government initiative established to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19, funneled billions of dollars into Moderna in its race to get a vaccine to the public, but it came with a catch: no doses delivered to the United States could be shared with outside its borders. This deal made under the Trump administration has become a “key stumbling block in the global fight against COVID-19,” as priorities are shifting to vaccinate the rest of the world. Moderna has “refused to grant access to its technology to vaccine manufacturers serving the developing world and at multiple points resisted pleas to increase aid to the neediest countries, angering critics who say the Trump administration should have driven a tougher bargain with Moderna when it had the chance.” When the deal was struck, government officials were focused on getting vaccines for use at home, and the need to send them abroad was not considered. Robbie Silverman, the senior manager of private-sector advocacy at global justice organization Oxfam America, said that nine of out ten doses of the Moderna vaccine have gone to wealthy nations.

North Korean Hospital Mum on Cause of Death for 10 “Suspected” COVID-19 Patients

A hospital in the DPRK sent 10 patients with COVID-19 symptoms to an unheated area during freezing cold weather. The nature of their deaths was falsified to “maintain Pyongyang’s claim that the country is completely virus free.” The hospital claims that these patients perished from malnutrition, but the patients themselves complained of fever and were diagnosed with pneumonia. North Korea has instituted extensive measures to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus, including lock down on entire cities and counties, travel bans between provinces, and trade suspensions. Despite its crumbling medical and healthcare infrastructure, the nation claimed that its preventive measures worked and “not a single person was infected” in April 2020. But, the DPRK government tracks “suspected cases” of COVID-19 without ever confirming cases that present with the associated symptoms. The 10 aforementioned patients were immediately buried without providing explanation to the families. An anonymous source said, “No one has died from the coronavirus in North Korea because the public will never know about it. Hospitals announce those deaths are due to tuberculosis or flu.” In March 2021, an internal survey found about 13,000 “suspected cases” in North Hamgyong. As of September 21st, only 43,000 of the 25 million people in North Korea were tested for COVID-19, and not a single case was confirmed.

EVENTS

Schar School Open House

The Schar School will be a hosting virtual open house for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 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.

Preventing the Next Pandemic—Leveraging Today’s Tools to Address the Biological Threats of the Future

We are at a critical point for preventing future pandemics and addressing biological sources of all origins. Many of the technologies needed are available today. However, challenges remain in garnering the resources to deploy existing tools broadly, ensuring that investments cover diverse solutions that create a healthy bio industrial base, and effectively fostering technologies that require additional research and development support.  The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) invites you to a webinar, “Preventing the Next Pandemic—Leveraging Today’s Tools to Address the Biological Threats of the Future,” on 15 November at 11:15 AM EST. The guest speakers are Dr. Vik Bajaj, the CEO and cofounder of Foresite Capital, and Dr. Luciana Borio, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Register here.

Hashing the Atom: Exploring Blockchain Solutions for Global Security

Join the Stimson Center’s Blockchain in Practice program for a two-day discussion on how distributed ledger technology (DLT) can help to secure the use and trade of nuclear, chemical, and other dual-use goods and technologies. The event will feature insights on how DLT solutions are not only demonstrating greater efficiencies in data management and business operations; but also, how DLT can be used to enhance nonproliferation and global security. Speakers will present a landscape of DLT solutions and highlight their experience with tech acceptance, adoption, and how DLT is building trust across organizations. The webinar is set for 17 – 18 November from 11 AM to 2 PM EDT each day. Register here.

Effective Chemical Supply Chain Security: Embracing Behavioral Change

The ongoing pandemic has changed the ways chemical manufacturers and distributors do business. Current issues like rapid commoditization, complex supply chains, aging assets, and increased need for dynamic operations planning make it more demanding than ever to achieve the productivity level that drives differentiation and innovation. With the overall global demand falling due to the pandemic, chemical and pharmaceutical producers and wholesalers have had to explore new avenues to revitalize the chemical trade and increase market responsiveness.

This trend has brought new security challenges and vulnerabilities to the industry as wholesalers, eager to compensate for early losses, sold to unvetted companies. State proliferators are masters at exploiting these vulnerabilities in the chemical industry for their Chemical Weapons programs and the development of fourth-generation agents. Hence proactive due diligence, customer vetting, and effective management of chemical supply chains are critical among all sectors. The new approach requires proper tools and procedures to mitigate pitfalls in chemical supply chains and encourage behavioral changes to broaden security awareness within organizations.

Join CRDF Global for a panel discussion exploring innovative chemical supply chain management methodologies and a practical approach to behavioral change led by Steve Hess, a chemical security and supply chain management consultant, and David Toddington, an IT and Law Enforcement expert and the founder of Toddington International. The webinar will take place on 16 November at 9 AM EST. Register here.

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