Pandora Report: 2.4.2022

This edition brings more updates from the CW world as the Council of Europe adopts resolutions calling on Russia to release Navalny and the OPCW releases the report from its Fact Finding Mission’s investigation of alleged use of chemical weapons in Kafr Zeita, Syria in 2016. We also cover the NCSC’s new bulletin discussing threats foreign exploitation poses to US citizens’ health data, excess deaths in the United States since the pandemic began, an opportunity to join us in the biodefense program at the Schar School, and much more.

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Calls on Russia to Investigate Navalny’s Poisoning and Comply with the CWC

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) noted during a plenary session last week “the ample medical evidence” indicating Alexei Navalny was poisoned with an organophosphorus cholinesterase inhibitor structurally related to the Novichok family. The PACE highlighted that five different tests determined its similarity to the family of nerve agents known only to have been produced in state laboratories of the USSR and, reportedly, Russia. PACE adopted a resolution calling on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights “by launching an independent and effective investigation into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.” According to the organization, “PACE also called on the Russian Federation to “immediately release Mr Navalny” under the interim measure indicated by the European Court of Human Rights on 16 February 2021. The adopted resolution called on the Russian Federation “to investigate the alleged development, production, stockpiling, and use of a chemical weapon on Russian territory”, providing concrete replies to questions posed by other States parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention as soon as possible. Finally, PACE called on the Russian Federation to reach agreement “on a technical assistance visit by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons” at the very earliest opportunity.” A supporting report authored by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights cited two articles co-authored by Drs. Gregory Koblentz and Stefano Costanzi- “Updating the CWC: How We Got Here and What Is Next,” and “Controlling Novichoks after Salisbury: Revising the Chemical Weapons Convention Schedules.”

OPCW Issues Fact-Finding Mission Report on Chemical Weapons Use Allegation in Kafr Zeita, Syria, on 1 October 2016

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ Fact Finding Mission (FFM) released its report on the FFM’s investigation regarding incidents of alleged use of toxic chemicals as weapons in Kafr Zeita, Governorate of Hama, Syrian Arab Republic in October 2016. The report concludes that industrial chlorine cylinder “barrels” were used as weapons in this incident. The FFM report was shared with States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The report will also be transmitted to the United Nations Security Council through the UN Secretary-General. The FFM was established in 2014 in response to ongoing claims of CW attacks in Syria with the mandate of determining if the weapons were used or not- not who used them. The FFM has previously determined that the use of chlorine, sulfur mustard, and sarin as chemical weapons took place in other incidents in the Syrian Arab Republic. See the Arms Control Association’s timeline of Syrian CW activity from 2012-2021 here.

White House Releases New Fact Sheet Reiterating Biden Administration’s Commitment to Global Health

The White House released its new fact sheet discussing the administration’s commitment to global health, boasting that the US remains the largest global health donor in the world, writing “In Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, the United States appropriated over $9 billion in global health programs, in addition to almost $16 billion in emergency supplemental funding for COVID-19.” The fact sheet states that, in addition to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration remains interested in, “strengthening health systems and institutions; advancing global health security; combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis; advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, and maternal, neonatal, and child health; closing gaps in nutrition and non-communicable diseases; and accelerating efforts towards universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Agenda.” Among the priorities listed in the fact sheet are supporting and strengthening the WHO, leading the global pandemic response, advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, continuing global leadership in combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, and building health security capacities. The fact sheet also notes that the US will rejoin the WHO’s Executive Board in May 2022, and will launch a strategic dialogue with WHO to ensure US and WHO mutual priorities are fully aligned. Other major points include improving pandemic preparedness broadly and accelerating global COVID-19 response efforts through the roll out of the Initiative for Global Vaccine Access.

Russia’s New Biosafety Regulations

Russia has drafted two new laboratory biosecurity regulations, one targeted at the physical protection of collections of pathogenic microorganisms and viruses and another approving a list of potentially dangerous biological objects, and measures to prevent accidents involving such objects and limit biological contamination from such accidents. Russian President Vladimir Putin approved measures to re-examine existing chemical and biological safety policies in 2019, with the government noting there are nearly 10,000 potentially dangerous chemical and biological enterprises in the country, most of which are located in cities with populations over 100,000 people. This was followed by Putin’s signing of the 2020 Law On Biological Safety in the Russian Federation, which “defines the principles for ensuring biological safety, the main biological threats and a set of measures to protect the public and the environment from dangerous biological factors, to stave off biological threats, to create and develop a system for monitoring biological risks, combat the spread of infectious diseases, form, preserve and develop collections of pathogenic microorganisms and viruses, plan the creation of production facilities and reserves, including the state material reserve of products to ensure the safety of the public, and to provide medical help to people.” Provisions in these proposals include creating a system for hazardous facilities protection which identifies and accounts for all pathogens, builds fences around facilities to prevent unauthorized access, and ensures that the number of people allowed to work with pathogens is limited.

US COVID Cases On the Rise- The Pandemic’s Uncounted Deaths

As the official number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States approaches 900,000, a recent Wall Street Journal article draws attention to the 987,456 excess deaths the country has suffered since the pandemic began at the time of writing. The article explains that, since the start of the pandemic, 6.8 million Americans have died- nearly one million more than expected in that time period. It explains that these excess deaths, as expected, are overwhelmingly attributed to COVID-19, but that the remainder likely includes improperly recorded COVID-19 deaths as well as deaths from other causes amplified by the pandemic. Examples of the latter include disruptions in healthcare and a spike in overdoses nationally. The article offers a particularly sobering statistic- “Covid-19 has left the same proportion of the population dead—about 0.3%—as did World War II, and in less time.” Important to consider too is how this pandemic has particularly impacted seniors, front-line workers, and minority populations, something that could not be said about the 1918 flu pandemic or major wars, which primarily impact younger people. Worse yet, the United States’ COVID-19 deaths per capita are the highest among large, high-income countries, according to The New York Times. This is the case despite hopes that Omicron’s generally milder nature might spare the US the struggles and destruction of previous waves. However, the Times notes, “Deaths have now surpassed the worst days of the autumn surge of the Delta variant, and are more than two-thirds as high as the record tolls of last winter, when vaccines were largely unavailable.” The United States’ experience with Omicron has differed than those of many comparable countries as hospital admissions continue to climb and vaccination rates lag, particularly among children.

Health Data Security Threatened by Foreign Exploitation

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) released a new Safeguarding Our Future bulletin focused on the threats foreign exploitation poses to US health data. The bulletin warns that efforts by the Chinese government to exploit this data, particularly DNA-related data, via hacking and partnering with US organizations have increased over the course of the pandemic. The bulletin goes on to detail risks posed to personal privacy, intelligence, the economy, and military this poses, urging US organizations to exercise caution in partnering with low-cost diagnostic testing organizations or services. Earlier in the pandemic, BGI Group (formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute) specifically targeted at least eleven US states, sometimes aggressively, with attempts to get their tests in government-run labs as states struggled to build testing capacity. BGI also came under scrutiny in at least five countries for its NIFTY test, a prenatal test that collects DNA from women, which was proven to have been used to amass data from over eight million women globally on behalf of the PLA. While the Pentagon warned in 2019 of the dangers posed to US servicemembers by at-home DNA testing kits, this NCSC bulletin marks a more blunt warning issued to US companies and consumers alike.

NIAID Pandemic Preparedness Plan Targets ‘Prototype’ and Priority Pathogens

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is re-focusing on preparing for a myriad of other viral threats that could cause future public health emergencies, building on decades of major research responses and medical countermeasure development undertaken by the agency. According to NIAID’s new Pandemic Preparedness Plan, the institute will direct its preparedness efforts on two fronts. First, researchers will identify “prototype pathogens” — viruses within viral families with the potential to cause significant human disease. Knowledge gained from studying prototype pathogens will also build a framework for a rapid research and product development response for other viruses within that virus family should an outbreak occur. For example, NIAID’s earlier research on SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV informed rapid vaccine development for SARS-CoV-2 in 2020. The plan’s second key research focus is on priority pathogens — viruses already known to be capable of causing significant human illness or death, such as Zika virus. This plan was informed by a November 2021 workshop NIAID hosted with members of the scientific community to facilitate discussions on the development of a pandemic response strategy and prioritization of prototype pathogens from viral families of concern. This plan also includes support for critical basic and preclinical studies to characterize these prototype and priority pathogens, including understanding viral biology and structure, host-immune responses, mechanisms of immune evasion, disease pathogenesis, and animal models of disease. This is in addition to efforts to support novel epidemiology and pathogen discovery programs, pre-clinical and clinical infrastructure capacity, technology enhancements to hasten therapeutic and vaccine development, and a robust and coordinated communication structure, according to the plan.

Predicting the Next Variant Surge- Dr. Rick Bright’s New York Times Opinion Essay

Dr. Rick Bright, an immunologist, virologist, and vaccine expert at the Pandemic Prevention Institute, recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times– “The Clues to the Next Variant Surge Are All Around Us.” In it he discusses how, often times, by the time a new variant is noticed and analyzed, it is already spreading in a community, if not beyond it. Of this he writes, “This analysis process is like testing every piece of hay in a stack to see whether it’s a needle — or, really, the equivalent of choosing and testing just 1 percent of the haystack.” He continues on to argue that scientists should focus their attention on sewage and the air in order to find new variants faster as people can shed the virus in their feces and exhaled breath, meaning the virus can be spotted before people have been tested or begin showing symptoms. He points to wastewater monitoring during the Omicron surge in places like New York City, Boston, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, which helped these cities identify where in the surge they were at. He writes, too, that far less attention has been paid to testing of air samples, though the Chinese reportedly have developed an air detection system for use at the 2022 Winter Olympics and UC Davis has begun monitoring air filters in elementary schools in the surrounding community. Though these methods offer innovative ways to tackle the challenge of tracking new variants, Bright acknowledges there are hurdles to them, such as how much “background noise” environmental samples contain (such as other viruses, bacteria, and fungi found in human waste) and how these methods would likely fall victim to online misinformation. He concludes that these methods do not offer a singular solution, but that they will be best used alongside other data sources to create a more holistic view of the virus’s spread around the world.

International Union for Conservation of Nature Releases New Situation Analysis

IUCN has released a new publication by Drs. Richard Kock and Hernan Caceres-Escobar, both veterinarians and One Health experts, detailing the roles and risks of wildlife in the emergence of human infectious diseases. This situation analysis presents an evidence-based examination of the relationship between wildlife and zoonosis, wildlife and emerging human pathogens and associated diseases, their origins, drivers, and risk factors. The report highlights key knowledge, and provides perspective on where research, policy, interventions, and capacity building are needed to reduce risks of zoonoses and emergent animal-origin human diseases globally. The publication is available here.

United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs Releases Newsletter Discussing Secretary-General’s Mechanism

UNODA has just released its third edition of its newsletter detailing updates on the Secretary-General’s Mechanism (UNSGM), a framework that helps facilitate the investigation of alleged use of chemical, biological, or toxin weapons in violation of relevant rules or customs of international law. The issue covers UNODA’s briefing on the UNSGM for member states, the nomination process for the mechanism’s roster, and expertise represented on it. It also includes an interview with Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack, a German microbiologist and veterinarian who carried out more than 25 UNSCOM inspection missions (eight of which as Chief Inspector) focused on Iraqi biological weapons.

NDIA Releases Vital Signs 2022

The National Defense Industrial Association’s third annual Vital Signs report is now available. The report features a collaborative study between the NDIA Strategy & Policy team and NDIA Emerging Technologies Institute. With a length of approximately 60 pages, each iteration of the Vital Signs report is able to capture the health of the industrial base in an accessible format for the wider public. Since the report is annual, it serves as an important reference when viewing trends within the defense industrial base and can be used by policymakers, industry professionals, and students alike. In addition to Vital Signs’ standard coverage of competition, emerging technologies, industrial security, and workforce issues, this edition covers the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on both supply chain and surge readiness of the defense industrial base. The report is available for download here.

Schar School of Policy and Government Master’s Degree and Graduate Certificate Open House

The Schar School is offering a virtual open house on Thursday, February 10 at 6:30 pm to allow prospective students the opportunity to become more acquainted with our programs as well as meet Schar School Dean Mark Rozell, program directors, current students, alumni, and the admissions team! This will include opportunities to learn about the Biodefense MS program and graduate certificates, so be sure to register for the event here. Prospective master’s and graduate certificate students who attend this event will be provided with an application fee waiver for the Fall 2022 graduate application.

Strengthening the Public Health Workforce

Join the de Beaumont Foundation and the Public Health National Center for Innovations (PHNCI) at the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB) for a webinar entitled Strengthening the Public Health Workforce on February 10 at 1pm EST to learn about the first-of-its-kind research-based estimation of the number of public health workers needed in state and local health departments. Presenters will discuss the national initiative called Staffing Up, which determined workforce levels needed to serve public health services to the nation, including how health departments can use this work to advocate for additional staffing. A conversational format will allow participants to submit questions directly to the presenters. Please register here.

DHS S&T Seeks Innovative Tech to Defense Against Chemical and Biological Threats

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) released a Request for Information (RFI) encouraging chemical and biological defense companies to bring their innovative technologies for test and evaluation in the Chemical and Biological Advanced Capability Testbed (CBT) in the New York City subway system. The deadline for submitting applications to the RFI is 5:00 p.m. EST on February 24, 2022. Qualifying applicants will be invited to participate in the Chemical and Bio-defense Testbed in the NYC subway system, which tests and evaluates cost-effective technologies to detect chemical and biological threats inside an actual subway environment, as well as mitigation strategies if threats are discovered. All applicants will be notified no later than March 9, 2022, if they’ve been chosen to participate. The project team will start integrating the selected technology this spring. This project is a collaboration between S&T, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and Argonne National Laboratory. For more information, visit the SAM.gov and https://cbt.ll.mit.edu/ or contact: 2022ChemicalandBiologicalDefenseTestbed@hq.dhs.gov.

CDC Seeking Feedback on New Rules for Verification of ABSL/BSL-4 Safety Standards

Late last month, the Federal Select Agent Program published a Federal Register Notice seeking public comment on a draft policy statement that describes verification requirements for Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4)/Animal BSL-4 laboratory facilities, including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems testing. These requirements are designed to help ensure facilities meet design parameters and operational procedures that help meet biosafety requirements in the select agent and toxin regulations. Comments on this notice will be accepted through March 21, 2022. More information on the notice is available for download here.

WHO Seeking Experts for Technical Advisory Group on Biosafety

The World Health Organization (WHO) is seeking experts to serve as members of the Technical Advisory Group on Biosafety (TAG-B). TAG-B is composed of technical experts in various areas of biological science, evolving technology, transport, safety and security. The TAG-B provides independent advice to the WHO including its strategic priorities and plans of action on specific topics relating to biosafety and biosecurity. The TAG-B will be multidisciplinary, with members who have a range of technical knowledge, skills and experience relevant to biosafety and biosecurity. Approximately 15 members may be selected. Instructions for submitting expressions of interest, as well as more information about the call for experts, is available here. The call closes on February 28.

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