This week offers a mixed bag, covering everything from the possibility that the infamous Russian flu was in fact caused by a coronavirus to Robert Califf’s return to the FDA. We also cover updates to Switzerland and the UK’s approaches to CBW concerns, Scientific American’s great new special edition on what COVID has taught us, a whole slew of events, and a number of exciting updates from the Biodefense Program!
Was the “Russian Flu” of the Late 19th Century Actually a Coronavirus?
Gina Kolata recently wrote in the New York Times about how scientists are increasingly speculating the famous Russia flu that emerged in 1889 may have actually been driven by a coronavirus. As she explains, it emerged in Bukhara, then part of the Russian Empire, before spreading globally, overwhelming hospitals and killing the elderly in droves. She explains that much of what happened sounds eerily familiar in 2022 writing, “Schools and factories were forced to close because so many students and workers were sick. Some of the infected described an odd symptom: a loss of smell and taste. And some of those who recovered reported a lingering exhaustion.” After a few years and at least three waves, the Russian flu drew to a close. This pattern and noted symptoms have sparked interest from virologists and historians of medicine who are curious if this pandemic was caused by a coronavirus and, if so, what that might tell us about the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it is extremely challenging to make a definitive ruling on this, she explains that molecular biologists are now able to find old virus in preserved lung tissues from Russian flu patients, prompting some researchers to go on the hunt for jars that might contain these lungs. Harald and Lutz Brüssow published in Microbial Biotechnology last year their work examining clinical evidence that the Russian flu pandemic may in fact have been caused by a coronavirus- “Clinical Evidence That the Pandemic from 1889 to 1891 Commonly Called the Russian Flu Might Have Been an Earlier Coronavirus Pandemic.” In it they note the similarities of characteristics writing, “Most notable are aspects of multisystem affections comprising respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms including loss of taste and smell perception; a protracted recovery resembling long covid and pathology observations of thrombosis in multiple organs, inflammation and rheumatic affections. ” They also note that, as with COVID-19 but unlike with influenza, the elderly were severely impacted while children fared much better during the Russian flu.
Dr. Robert Califf to Head the FDA
Dr. Robert Califf is again the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, a position he previously held under President Obama from 2016 to 2017. He was very narrowly confirmed by the Senate as concerns about his close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, as well as GOP opposition to his stance on birth control, nearly prevented him from securing the 50-46 vote. The Duke University cardiologist faces serious challenges at FDA, which has lacked a political leader for 13 months now, though he should be more able to guide policies and the administration’s regulatory agenda than he was during Obama’s lame duck period. Nicholas Florko at Stat News recently highlighted six key decisions likely to either make or break his first year back at FDA, including controversy surrounding pediatric COVID-19 vaccinations.
One Health Commission Launches New Websites Tracking Strategic Action Plans
The One Health Commission recently launched two new websites, one compiling national One Health strategic action plans and another compiling One Health antimicrobial resistance strategic plans. These efforts have been ongoing since 2019, demonstrating the Commission’s efforts and dedication to making this information more readily available and easy to access. Both pages are organized into national strategies, with the AMR one including sections for IGO and regional union strategic plans in addition to country-specific ones. The Commission states the creation of these websites was a global One Health community effort, further demonstrating the growing momentum of this movement and the importance of its goal of addressing human, animal, and environmental health as closely connected and necessary to view together to get the best outcomes.
Swiss Federal Council Adopts Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy 2022-2025
At its February 2022 meeting, the Federal Council of Switzerland adopted its first ever arms control and disarmament strategy. The strategy sets out goals and measures in five areas of action, including nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, conventional weapons, autonomous weapons, and cyberspace and outer space. The Council states, “Current developments in Eastern Europe and Asia demonstrate how high security-related tensions currently are. This makes Switzerland’s commitment to peace and security even more important. Disarmament and arms control is an important instrument in this context. The opportunities and risks entailed by new technological developments are becoming more significant. The strategy places a particular emphasis on the development of norms concerning autonomous weapons, cyberspace and outer space.” The impetus behind this, according to the Council, was increasing great power competition necessitating better ensuring international arms control and disarmament architectures are maintained and further developed.
COVID-19 Remains a Threat to the Military, According to Biodefense Program Alumnus
Biodefense program alumnus Dr. Yong-bee Lim recently published an article with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explaining how COVID-19 was and still is a threat to the US military. In his piece, “Even as Omicron Infections Trend Down, Long COVID Remains a Threat to the Military,” he highlights how two particular examples, the early 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 on the USS Roosevelt and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testing positive for the virus, demonstrate the multitude of ways this can hurt military readiness. He explains that disease threats can harm operational capacity, as was the case with the Roosevelt when she was forced to make an emergency port call in Guam for months as she was de-contaminated and her sailors quarantined, as well as to critical leadership in the Pentagon.
He also goes into great depth regarding the long-term impacts long COVID could have on readiness and retention for the services. Dr. Lim writes, “In the military, leaders will have to grapple with how to maintain the size of the armed forces and how to respond should long COVID affect key people in the chain of command. Already, Austin is having the Department of Defense undertake a Biodefense Posture Review. The first review of its kind in Defense Department history, it is meant to “assess the biological threat landscape and establish the Department’s approach to biodefense, to include clarifying biodefense priorities, roles, responsibilities, authorities, capabilities, and posture.” The Pentagon should finish review in mid-2022. It is an opportunity to consider a variety of issues, including how long COVID could impact service members and key individuals in both the military and civilian chain of command.” Similar issues were highlighted by Biodefense PhD student Danyale C. Kellogg in her article in National Defense.
French President Refuses COVID-19 Test in Russia
French President Emmanuel Macron refused to take a COVID-19 test when he arrived in Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, citing concerns about giving the Russians access to his DNA and resulting in the pair keeping an almost comical distance from one another as they discussed the Ukraine crisis. This prompted some outlets to question why the French president would be so concerned about the Kremlin getting a hold of his DNA and speculate that he is just being paranoid. However, this is hardly anything new. During the Obama administration, this concern stemmed from the idea that an adversary’s access to the president’s DNA could lead to the creation of a customized bioweapon for an assassination attempt, an idea similar to the concept of an ethnic bioweapon. This threat extends beyond world leaders too. Just a couple of weeks ago, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued a bulletin warning US companies and persons to be aware of this threat when picking testing contractors and companies. In recent years, too, the Department of Defense has warned servicemembers not to use at home DNA testing kits, such as 23 and Me, for fear that they are helping adversaries amass data on US military members for nefarious use later. Amid the massive increase in this type of testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, fears about foreign powers amassing data on US citizens have grown. Early in the pandemic, as the US struggled to build testing capacity and states could not run their own tests in their state labs, BGI Group (formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute) targeted US state governments with cheap tests that promised to rapidly increase their capacity. The problem, however, was that BGI is known to have used its NIFTY test, a prenatal test used by pregnant people globally, to collect data in collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the PRC and CCP. Similar concerns surround the rise of personalized medicine too, further demonstrating Macron is not just being unnecessarily paranoid.
Biodefense PhD Program Alumni, LCDR Jennifer Osetek (USCGR) and Dr. Keith Ludwick, Publish New Chapter in Handbook of Security Science
Drs. Jennifer Osetek and Keith Ludwick recently published their chapter in Springer’s new volume, Handbook of Security Science, entitled “Societal Security and COVID-19”. In it they explore non-medical obstacles that pose threats to healthcare delivery, spanning security, logistics, communications, and cultural challenges within this category. They discuss issues such as attacks on healthcare workers and cybersecurity vulnerabilities, offering insights into how experiences of these during COVID-19 should inform future pandemic planning. Dr. Osetek defended her dissertation, “The Last Mile: Removing Non-medical Obstacles in the Pursuit of Global Health Security,” in 2018 and is now an Assistant Professor of Public Health Sciences at Pennsylvania State’s College of Medicine, a faculty member in the Public Health Preparedness option of the Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security, and a Senior Consultant at Dynamo Technologies supporting the US Coast Guard’s Office of Specialized Capabilities. Dr. Ludwick defended his dissertation, “The Legend of the Lone Wolf: Categorizing Singular and Small Group Terrorism” in 2016 and is now an Associate Professor in the American Public University System, having retired from the FBI.
Strengthening Controls on Novichoks
Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Program Director, recently published with Dr. Stefano Costanzi in The Nonproliferation Review. Their article, “Strengthening controls on Novichoks: a family-based approach to covering A-series agents and precursors under the chemical-weapons nonproliferation regime,” discusses how the CWC can be strengthened to better handle Novichoks by adding families of Novichok agents with guanidine branches. They also offer an approach for the CWC and Australia Group to base their control of Novichok precursors on families of chemicals instead of individually enumerated chemicals. Free e-prints of the article are available using this link.
How COVID Changed the World
Scientific American has released this special edition which discusses lessons from the last two years dealing with the pandemic. Articles in the collection discuss emergency science, sociological analysis of the pandemic and attitudes about rugged individualism, and how the pandemic showed how fragile our health institutions really are. They also include a piece on how long COVID is drawing more attention to chronic illnesses, which are commonly misunderstood and mischaracterized as well as discussion on the future of in-office work, nasal spray vaccines, and the pandemic’s widening of societal divisions.
Judicial Enforcement of BWC and CWC Implementing Legislation
VERTIC, the Verification Research, Training, and Information Centre, has just released a brief authored by Thomas Brown discussing ongoing challenges in effectively enforcing the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions. He determines through analysis of two case studies that national stakeholders struggle with creating legislation to implement these treaties due to struggles with incorporating expert technical knowledge into the drafting of legislation, challenges in international cooperation, and creating legislation that is understandable despite the often highly technical nature of it all. The report concludes with a number of recommendations for national stakeholders in the process of creating relevant legislation, highlighting assistance programs available to help in this process if needed. Access the brief here.
Ten Years of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria: A Look Back and a Look Ahead
The Chemical Weapons Coalition and Arms Control Association are hosting a webinar on CW use in Syria February 22 and 10 am ET. The expert panel will assess the progress that has been achieved to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal, what is left to be done, and how to ensure chemical weapons are never used again.
- H.E. Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW
- Joby Warrick, author and journalist at The Washington Post, and author of the book, Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World. He will discuss the events surrounding the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile;
- Amb. Ahmet Uzümcü, former Director-General of the OPCW will describe the lessons that can be learned from this period, including from the experience of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, and the Declaration Assessment Team;
- Izumi Nakamitzu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, will review ongoing efforts to address questions and concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons program, and international efforts to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use.
The panel discussion will be followed by a Q&A session. This discussion will be on the record, and a recording of the event will be posted on the CWC Coalition website shortly after the event. Please click here to download a PDF of speaker bios. Register here.
Next Generation Masks and Respirators: How the Strategic National Stockpile Can Better Protect Essential Workers and the Public During Pandemics
Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is hosting the Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Security webinar, Next Generation Masks and Respirators: How the Strategic National Stockpile Can Better Protect Essential Workers and the Public During Pandemics. Masks and respirators have played an important role in keeping people safe in both community and healthcare settings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In a future large-scale outbreak or pandemic, it is possible to increase the protection of healthcare workers and the public from infection through more efficient, certified, well-fitting, and comfortable masks. This session will focus on the current status of mask and respirator stockpiling, the scientific advances that could lead to more effective and accessible masks, and policies that the U.S. government could support to build this capacity in anticipation of future public health threats.
- Anita Cicero, JD, Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
- Representative Lori Trahan (D-MA) (Invited)
- Mr. Steven Adams, Director of the Strategic National Stockpile, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Dr. Eric Toner, Senior Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
A Q&A session will follow the moderated panel.
The webinar will be hosted Thursday, February 24, 2022 at 11 am ET. Register here.
National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to Host Its First Meeting in Two Years
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is a federal advisory committee that addresses issues related to biosecurity and dual use research at the request of the United States Government, hosted by NIH’s Office of Science Policy. It has up to 25 voting members at a time who span a broad range of expertise, including molecular biology, microbiology, infectious diseases, biosafety, public health, veterinary medicine, plant health, national security, biodefense, law enforcement, scientific publishing, and other related fields. On the meeting’s draft agenda there is a discussion of where NSABB will go next and what its charge is, offering what is sure to be an interesting discussion given what has transpired since its last meeting two years ago. The meeting will occur virtually on February 28 at 12 pm ET and is available to the public (information on attendance is available here).
Council on Strategic Risks- COVID-19 Response Technologies & Their Future Role in Pathogen Early Warning
Join the Council on Strategic Risks for COVID-19 Response Technologies & Their Future Role in Pathogen Early Warning on Wednesday, February 23 from 12:00–12:45 EST. RSVP here. This discussion will be hosted by Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks. Panelists hosted are from two companies that have led the way in developing innovative COVID-19 response technologies:
Dr. Mariana Matus, CEO and Cofounder of Biobot Analytics, will share how Biobot has pioneered wastewater testing to detect COVID-19 outbreaks and variant trends — and how this technology will be critical in early warning for future biological threats.
Matthew McKnight, Chief Commercial Officer at Ginkgo Bioworks, and leader of Concentric by Ginkgo, will discuss Concentric’s K-12 COVID-19 testing program and the future of this effort.
The panel discussion will be followed by an audience Q&A. This event will be recorded and open to the public, including members of the press.
Teaching Climate Change as a National Security Threat
The Schar School recently released this story, adapted from the Fall/Winter Schar School Pulse Magazine, discussing the various intersections of climate change and national security. It discusses some of the ways the impacts of climate change threaten military readiness, its relationship with transnational crime, how the administration is working to integrate it into national security planning, and how the Schar School has long since recognized this threat and integrated it into our programs. This comes in advance of the Schar School’s Risk of Climate Change to International Security talk this Wednesday, February 23 at 5:30 pm ET, which can be attended by registering here.
US Senate- Addressing the Gaps in America’s Biosecurity Preparedness
The Senate held this hearing yesterday, February 17, featuring Christopher Currie of GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice section, Dr. Asha George of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, and Dr. Gerald Parker of Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Bush School of Government and Public Service as witnesses. The hearing, held by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, discussed key challenges and next steps for improving American biosecurity. The recording and testimonies are available here.
Biodefense Graduate Program Added to the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs List of Specialized Courses and Degrees
The Schar School’s Biodefense Program has been added to UNODA’s list of specialized courses and degrees in the field of disarmament. The list highlights courses around the world noted for their strong offerings in this area. The Biodefense Programs offers graduate degrees, an MS (both in-person and online), and a PhD. Find more information on our programs here.
Biodefense PhD Alumnus Named Deputy Directory of the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons, Council on Strategic Risks
Dr. Yong-Bee Lim recently was promoted to Deputy Director of CSR’s Nolan Center! He is also currently a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Bulletin Editorial Fellows Program. While in the Biodefense Program, he was selected for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security and was also a Presidential Scholar in the Schar School. His prior work includes research with the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Health and Human Services. Congrats to Dr. Lim!
UK Biological Security Strategy Refresh: Call for Evidence
The United Kingdom has opened a call for evidence to help revamp its Biological Security Strategy. The country seeks to revamp its approach to these issues as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed critical shortcomings in its ability to respond to biological threats. The Financial Times reported recently that this was, in part, also triggered by a critical assessment from parliament that outlined several of these shortcomings. The UK’s Biological Security Strategy, published in July 2018, brought together for the first time the work that takes place across government to protect the UK from significant biological risks. The 2018 strategy identifies several significant biological security risks relating to human health, animal and plant health, the environment, accidental release, and deliberate attack, including:
- a major health crisis (such as pandemic influenza or new infectious disease)
- antimicrobial resistance
- a deliberate biological attack by state or non-state actors (including terrorists)
- animal and plant diseases, which themselves can pose risks to human health
- accidental release and dual-use research of concern