Pandora Report: 3.4.2022

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, Russian claims that the United States is supporting biological weapons labs in Ukraine and Georgia have begun to circle online once more, including among QAnon supporters. The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Working Group II findings were released, warning of a bleak future if the world fails to rapidly take action to combat climate change. Finally, we cover the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s new charge to review policies pertaining to research with enhanced potential pandemic pathogens and Dual Use Research of Concern, the CRISPR patent patent battle, and more.

Russian Disinformation Campaign Targeting CTR Labs Continues Amid Ukraine Invasion

As we have discussed multiple times in the last few weeks, Russia is waging an ongoing disinformation campaign targeting the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program (CTR). To recap briefly, this program was established to help handle the legacy of the former USSR’s WMD programs, which were vast in nature and geography, spanning 12 time zones and 15, at the time, newly sovereign states. It also aimed to help find employment for former Soviet scientists in the hopes that they would not find employment in countries like Iran or North Korea. This program eventually expanded and its goals changed as it drew closer to accomplishing one of its core goals of dismantling nuclear stockpiles and infrastructure in the former Soviet republics. As its attention shifted more towards chemical and biological threats, labs in the program continued to be modernized or built in order to be able to handle dangerous pathogens, support public health efforts in the region, and build networks of competent professionals in partner countries. These labs are strictly peaceful and, though they do receive help and funding from DTRA, are still under the control of their host countries’ governments.

Within the last couple of weeks, these lies have begun to circulate again across social media, including re-posts of a post from the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo claiming the CTR labs are researching “methods of destroying the Russian people at the genetic level,” and maps claiming to depict locations of US BW facilities across Ukraine. As the claims have continued to be circled by Russian, Serbian, and Chinese outlets, accounts linked to QAnon conspiracy theorists have also adopted them, claiming the Russians are launching airstrikes on Ukraine to target the supposed BW facilities so that Dr. Anthony Fauci cannot create a “sequel to COVID-19”. These rely on the debunked idea that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered as a bioweapon, though they continue to spread on platforms like Telegram and 8chan. Chinese state outlets, notably Xinhua, have made similar claims as well, including that COVID-19 was created by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft Detrick, MD, the US Army introduced COVID-19 in China with its delegation at the 2019 World Military Games in Wuhan, and, most recently, that the Omicron variant entered the country on a piece of mail from Canada. The Russian claims about the CTR labs have been debunked by PolitiFact, Snopes, and AFP Fact Check as well. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently highlighted, Russia’s invasion puts the labs and the pathogens they store, in addition to the good they provide to the country and region, at risk.

These claims also picked up pace again in recent years as these labs often times played central roles in the response to COVID-19 in these countries. The Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health, part of Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC), a CTR-sponsored facility in Tbilisi was instrumental in the country’s response to COVID-19. NCDC activated its emergency response unit in January of 2020, well before there were cases in Georgia, and, by February, had its own testing capability with results delivered in 24 hours or less, making it one of the major success stories in pandemic response regionally. Despite being invited to visit the lab numerous times, the Russians refused and seemed largely unphased by the results of an international inspection in 2018 that found the lab was both completely peaceful and transparent. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, made another baseless claim about the Lugar Center- blaming the “Pentagon-controlled” laboratories for outbreaks of COVID-19 in Russia, while stating the lab was also developing BW agents for use against Russia. This is absolutely nothing new, but the risks continue to grow the more this continues on. Read this piece from David Lasseter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, providing his perspective on Putin’s WMD disinformation.

@PandoraReport Twitter thread providing context for CTR’s founding and recent history of Russian disinformation targeting these facilities

What the War in Ukraine Might Mean for Health Security

It’s a story nearly as old as human history itself- war and disease go hand in hand. As images of newborns and their mothers sheltering in makeshift maternity wards in the basements of Ukrainian hospitals spread around the world, reports that Ukraine is running dangerously low on critical medical supplies surfaced. The situation is so bad, apparently, that efforts to help stop a polio outbreak had to be paused, Kyiv’s Okhmadyt children’s hospital paused cancer treatments, and the WHO is warning the country is almost out of oxygen supplies. This is all as the Russian military is accused of firing directly on hospitals and ambulances. As of 3/3/2022, UNHCR estimated that Poland had taken over 505,000 refugees, Hungary 139,000, Moldova nearly 98,000, Slovakia 72,000, Romania over 50,000, and Russia close to 49,000. USAID Administrator Samantha Power estimated that as many as 5 million refugees could flee the country in the coming weeks. While many fleeing Ukrainians have been welcomed by open arms and doors in Europe that were notably not open during other recent refugee crises, concerns about surges in COVID-19, polio (which the country had vaccine-derived cases of before the invasion), and more are growing as such a large number of people suddenly exit the country, oftentimes staying in closely-confined quarters with less than ideal sanitation and clean water access in the process.

Russian Military Shells Europe’s Largest Nuclear Power Plant…and the Whole Thing Was on Live Stream

Concerns have also risen with the Russian’s capture of Chernobyl and their overnight (livestreamed) shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which started a fire that has since been extinguished. While the fire is out and the IAEA says Zaporizhzhia has returned to normal operations, the safety systems were not impacted by the attack, and there was no release of radioactive material, some remained concerned about how the facility staff will function under Russian control in such hostile conditions. Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, stated only one reactor is working right now at 60% in Zaporizhzhia and that he was trying to contact Russian and Ukrainian officials to sort out political responsibility. Zaporizhzhia houses six of the 15 reactors in Ukraine, producing half the country’s electricity as the continent’s largest nuclear facility. An official at Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear plant operator, said that radiation was normal, but his organization could no longer contact the plant’s management and had no control over potentially dangerous nuclear material. Earlier in the invasion, the Russians took Chernobyl, famous for its 1986 explosion and subsequent disaster, which the Ukrainian government did say led to a spike in radiation levels. However, it is unclear if that was due to malfunctioning sensors or even possibly the Russian military stirring up dust in the largely abandoned area. It remains unclear why they took either site, and the US and other countries have reminded Russia it is in fact a war crime to target nuclear power plants. Shortly after the Russians captured Chernobyl, Dr. James Acton wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Chernobyl is inside a large exclusion zone, and the uninhabited space would mitigate the consequences of a second nuclear accident there. Ukraine’s other reactors are not similarly isolated. Moreover, much of the fuel in these other reactors is substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl. To put it simply, nuclear power plants are not designed for war zones. It seems exceedingly unlikely that Moscow would authorize deliberate attacks on these facilities, but they could nonetheless become targets in a war that will, in any case, disrupt their operations.” This again highlights how strange and potentially dangerous this situation is, despite the current relative safety in this rapidly evolving conflict. Read more about concerns about how nuclear power facilities would fare in conflicts in the Middle East and East Asia.

NIH Orders National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to Review Research Safety Policies

The NIH Director has directed the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to conduct a review of existing policies pertaining to research using enhanced potential pandemic pathogens and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). This will include review of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Recommended Policy Guidance, the HHS Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions, the USG Policy for Oversight of Life Sciences DURC, and the USG Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences DURC, according to an NIH statement. NSABB was charged in January 2020 to “1) provide recommendations on balancing security and public transparency when sharing information about research with enhanced potential pandemic pathogens and 2) evaluate and analyze the U.S. Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) policies.” However, this was put on hold as the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Dr. Lawrence Tabak, Acting NIH Director. While these concerns are not new, for example- concerns about publishing research on gain-of-function (GoF) testing on influenza viruses have stirred controversy for some years now, this comes amid concerns about lab leaks that are in large part driven by speculative claims about the origin of the pandemic. Proponents of doing such research argue that pathogens like influenza viruses and coronaviruses mutate all the time in nature, so it is critical to do this work in a lab to be better prepared in understanding how a new variant might spread or present clinically. The Washington Post quoted Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, expressing support for the review, stating, ““I think it’s really important to review this stuff and to regulate it, and make sure that it’s regulated in the right way.” She continued by explaining how she thinks this will be useful amid all sorts of conspiracy theories and conjectures about where SARS-CoV-2 came from (which, by the way, Nature announced this week it has three studies in pre-print indicating the pandemic can be traced back to a market in Wuhan and that SARS-CoV-2 did spill over from animals).

Harvard and MIT Broad Institute Wins CRISPR Patent Case Against UC Berkeley

The US Patent and Trademark Office ruled this week that UC Berkeley, Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, and the University of Vienna (where Charpentier was a PI in the Max Perutz Labs where she did work foundational to developing CRISPR/Cas9 technology; the group are referred to as CVC in documents) do not hold several contested patents for some CRISPR technologies. The Patent and Trial Appeal Board of the Patent and Trademark Office instead determined that the Broad Institute at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology actually used CRISPR technologies on eukaryotic cells before CVC and filed successfully, meaning they actually hold these patents. CRISPR/Cas9 was developed by Dr. Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkley and Charpentier in 2012, for which they shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, the Patent Office granted the Broad Institute a patent for work using CRISPR based on some earlier work (from ca. 2011-2012) in 2014, which Broad successfully argued was correctly issued, recognizing Dr. Feng Zhang’s work as the first engineering of CRISPR-Cas9 to be used for mammalian genome editing. The Broad Institute stated in a press release, “Broad believes that all institutions should work together to ensure wide, open access to this transformative technology and will continue to explore how best to make this happen.” This has potential to harm UC Berkley’s revenue and, CVC argues, will likely complicate the work of biotech companies using CRISPR for their gene-editing therapies.

Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

The Working Group II has released its contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. The report assesses the impacts of climate change, focusing on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels. It also reviews vulnerabilities and the capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change. According to the press release: “The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F). Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible. Risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.” Furthermore, “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.” A Summary for Policymakers, Technical Summary, and the Full Report are available for download. TRACIE recently discussed climate change and its impact on healthcare systems, writing, “Climate change negatively affects national security, environmental stability, and human health. In 2020 alone, over 20 climate-related disasters occurred in the U.S., resulting in losses of over $1 billion (Smith, 2021). Climate model projections predict an increase in these adverse effects over the next century, with certain existing health threats intensifying and new health threats emerging (Crimmins, Balbus, Gamble, et al., 2016).” Read TRACIE’s 2022 “Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare Considerations” report here.

Qualitative Risk Assessment for African Swine Fever Virus Introduction

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently released its new paper, “Qualitative Risk Assessment for African Swine Fever Virus Introduction: Caribbean, South, Central and North Americas”. The report rates countries on the likelihood of SFV entering through informal importation of pork products and by-products, entry through food waste, fomites, live pig trade, and likelihood of exposure once the virus has entered the country through one of these channels. The report also noted, “The lack of data resulted in high levels of uncertainty for most of the risk pathways, except for those involving formal trade of commodities framed by national and international regulations, under higher biosecurity and strict inspections and controls.” It makes a number of recommendations for strengthening prevention measures targeting major risk pathways for ASFV exposure, including improvements to diagnostics and disease control.

Draft, Call for Consultation- WHO Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences

The draft Global guidance framework for the responsible use of life sciences. Mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research (the Framework) has just been released for comments. The aim is to gather comments and feedback from all those interested in the responsible use of the life sciences. The deadline to provide comments in March 18 using this site. According to WHO:

Research and applications in the life sciences and converging technologies contribute to a better understanding of diseases, and to the development of new drugs, vaccines, innovative treatment and medical devices. However, rapid scientific and technical changes in the life sciences raise a number of risks, including the safety and security risks of health-related research.

In the beginning of 2021, WHO Research for Health Department (RFH) initiated the development of the Global guidance framework for the responsible use of life sciences. Mitigating biorisks and governing dualuse research (the Framework) to address the risks caused by accidents, inadvertent applications and deliberate misapplications with the intention to cause harm to humans, nonhuman animals and the environment. Building on pre-existing work and initiatives, the Framework aims to provide Member States and other key stakeholders guidance on values, principles, tools and mechanisms to prevent and mitigate biorisks while harnessing the power of life sciences for global health and society. In this respect, the draft Framework targets a wide range of multidisciplinary audiences at individual, institutional, national, regional and international levels.

The draft Framework was informed by three dialogues on dual-use research organized in 2020 and two consultative meetings held in 2021, which were attended by a broad range of stakeholders and experts from all six WHO regions. The draft Framework draws directly on the findings and considerations of five working groups established to provide inputs on specific themes. The draft Framework is based on the reports developed by these five working groups and build upon this work to further develop key considerations for the governance of biorisks.

Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz participated in several of the dialogues, consultative meetings, and working groups that contributed to the Framework.

Former World Bank Health Director Publishes New Book

Dr. Soji Adeyi, former Director of World Bank Health, published his new book, Global Health in Practice: Investing Amidst Pandemics, Denial of Evidence, and Neo-dependency, recently with World Scientific. Adeyi seeks to better understand fundamental weaknesses in global health, asking “What are the roots of discontents in global health? How do geo-politics, power dynamics, knowledge gaps, racism, and corruption affect global health? Is foreign aid for health due for a radical overhaul?” His book explores barriers to accomplishing lofty goals like universal health coverage, including science denialism and the challenges of uneven progress, and how policy makers and practitioners can better handle these.

The Battle for Influence in the Information Domain

The National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction will host this webinar on March 17 at 1:00 pm EST. The United States faces adversaries competing on multiple planes, including the information domain. In many ways the United States is being out-maneuvered and out-competed both in cyberspace and strategic communication. While some aspects of this struggle over influence occur in the physical and military worlds, the vast preponderance of it happens in the Information Domain where the US Government has been slow to adapt sufficiently to this new strategic contest. As a result, we are inviting strategic disappointment and defeat in places globally where we once held almost unchallenged supremacy. Register for this event here.

Texas Global Health Security Innovation Consortium Global Health Security Innovation Week

This unprecedented conference, part of SXSW, brings together the global health security and innovation communities to define, communicate, and solve our most critical challenges in preventing, predicting, detecting, and responding to global health security threats. The virtual event will emphasize the importance of locally driven innovation in emerging ecosystems (LMICs) and will promote equitable access to technologies and resources for ensuring health security in all communities. Together participants will create a road map and a call to action for creating and scaling innovative solutions to global health security challenges. This conference will feature a panel, “Advances in Science and Technology in the Life Sciences,” featuring Dr. Gregory Koblentz (Director of the George Mason Biodefense Graduate Program), Dr. Filippa Lentzos (Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London), Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security), and Dr. Jamie Metzl (Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council).

The Texas Global Health Security Innovation Consortium (TEXGHS) is the host of GHS Innovation Week 2022, hosted March 12-15. Organizing partners who have all helped to make this conference possible are Austin Technology Incubator (ATI)Global Health Security NetworkIDEO, and UNAIDS Health Innovation Exchange. Infections and disease can spread rapidly and seemingly without warning in our globally connected world, putting people anywhere and everywhere at risk with little warning. TEXGHS was founded in 2020 and has since grown to a global network of innovators and partners worldwide who help local health solutions make a global impact. TEXGHS is dedicated to thwarting current and future global health threats by fueling invention, innovation and best practices and processes in disease control and prevention. Register for the free virtual event here.

How Do We Respond to Growing Threats to Health Security?- King’s College London

Two years on from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scale and diversity of health security threats continues to challenge governments and practitioners worldwide. Various crises such as the US Anthrax Attacks, SARS, Ebola and COVID-19 have repeatedly shown the difficulty anticipating and responding to rapidly changing threat landscapes.

Now, as climate change drives the emergence of novel pathogens, hostile actors wage information bio-warfare, and drug resistance threatens our existing medical countermeasures, the importance of strengthening health security approaches has never been greater.

How should we address increasingly diverse future threats to health security whilst responding to the current pandemic crisis? How can we support health systems across high and low income settings to prepare for health emergencies? How should health, government and security actors engage with one another to anticipate health security threats? And importantly following COVID-19, how can we prevent the next pandemic from occurring in the first place?

The panel of international experts will discuss these important issues at the fifth panel in the War Studies at 60 Seminar Series, led by the Conflict and Health Research Group in the Department of War Studies. The event will be held on March 9 at 6:30 pm GMT. Register on Eventbrite.

About the speakers

Professor Máire Connolly is currently PI of the Horizon 2020 PANDEM project at the School of Medicine at NUIG. Prior to joining NUIG, she worked at WHO Headquarters in Geneva for 15 years as Coordinator for Disease Control in Emergencies and subsequently Advisor to WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security up to 2012. Her role included setting the global research agenda for emergencies. She was a member of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team and has worked on UN missions in 15 emergency affected countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Dame Jenny Harries DBE is a public health physician who has been the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and head of NHS Test and Trace since April 2021. She was previously a regional director at Public Health England, and then Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England from June 2019 to April 2021.

Professor Richard Sullivan is Professor of Cancer and Global Health at King’s College London, and Director of the Institute of Cancer Policy (ICP) and co-Director of the Conflict and Health Research Group. As well as holding a number of Visiting Chairs, Richard is an NCD advisor to the WHO, civil-military advisor to Save the Children, and a member of the National Cancer Grid of India. In conflict systems, his research teams work on capacity building in conflict medicine across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as studies of the basic package of health services in Afghanistan, civil-military co-operation in health security, polio eradication and insecurity in Pakistan, and use of intelligence in high security disease outbreaks.

Dr Gemma Bowsher is co-lead investigator for the biosecurity and health intelligence research theme at the Conflict and Health Research Group, and an affiliate member of the Centre for Science and Security Studies, Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research programmes focus on health security intelligence, linking clinical domains with intelligence processes within national and international governance systems. She is also a practising doctor in the National Health Service.

Westminster Health Forum: Priorities for the UK Health Security Agency and Preparedness for Future Health Threats

This conference will discuss priorities for the new UK Health Security Agency. It will be an opportunity to discuss priorities and future outlook for the new agency – and key issues for the development and implementation of its role in improving national public health and responding to future health threats. Sessions in the agenda look at the UKHSA’s role – scope, priorities and opportunities for collaboration, prevention and mitigation – key issues for resources, use of data, and health surveillance capabilities, public health research – priorities for investment and funding, innovation, and collaboration, community health and local healthcare – collaboration and local responses, reducing inequalities, and the role of the UKHSA, international collaboration – priorities for development and opportunities for UK leadership, and lessons from COVID 19 – the UK’s response, the role of genomics, and preparing for future health threats.

The program includes a keynote session with Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive, UKHSA. There will be further keynote contributions from Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, Saïd Professorship of Vaccinology, Jenner Institute & Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Oxford; Professor Kate Ardern, Director of Public Health, Wigan Council and Lead Director of Public Health for Health Protection and Emergency Planning, Greater Manchester Combined Authority; Dr Laura Blackburn, Head of Science, PHG Foundation; and Richard Sloggett, Founder and Programme Director, Future Health; and former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. This event will occur on April 7 at 8:30 am GMT. Register here.

NBSB Public Meeting

The next public meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) will be held on Monday, March 7 from 1:30pm – 3:00pm ET. Join the NBSB members and distinguished guests and experts as they discuss topics to issues related to the public health supply chain and climate change.  We will hear from the HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, and the US Department of Defense (DoD) Support for Supply Chain and Industrial Expansion through the Joint Program Executive Office (JPEO) for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (CBRND). Preregistration is required here.

Council on Strategic Risks’ Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons

CSR has released the Call for Applications for their Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons program.

The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is continuing to develop and cultivate creative solutions that could help address biological threats, with a particular focus on the deliberate weaponization of infectious diseases. As part of this work, CSR is announcing a call for applications for the 2022 – 2023 class of our Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons. Applications are due by 5pm Eastern Standard Time on April 1, 2022. Four to six Fellows will be selected. In this one-year Fellowship, successful applicants will work with leading experts committed to biological threat reduction and biosecurity, including former government officials who helped dismantle Cold War-era biological weapons capabilities and advance international biological cooperation and policy progress. They will interact with current and former government leaders as well as private and public sector innovators. 

UNIDR Global Disarmament Essay Competition

From the UN Institute for Disarmament Research:

The UN Secretary-General’s “Securing our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament”, highlighted that while the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development took an important step towards articulating how arms control, peace and security contribute to development”, there is a lot that remains to be done “in order to bring the historical relationship between disarmament and development back to the forefront of international consciousness”.

In order to contribute to this effort, the first annual UNIDIR Youth Global Disarmament Essay competition will be held in 2022. The initiative will invite students and young professionals aged between 18 and 29 years to prepare and submit an original essay of no more than 2,000 words on the theme of “the disarmament, security, and development nexus, including with reference to the Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda entitled ‘Securing Our Common Future’ and the United Nations General Assembly resolution on Youth, Disarmament and Non-proliferation (A/RES/76/45). Your entry might consider, but is not limited to, exploring the following areas:

  • Disarmament, economic growth and inequalities.
  • Disarmament for sustainable cities.
  • Innovative disarmament efforts in the light of 21st century’s environmental challenges.
  • Gender mainstreaming for sustainable disarmament and development.

Applicants are invited to draw on their personal experience, whether at the local, national, regional, or international level. All papers will be reviewed anonymously on the basis of their originality, intellectual rigor, relevance to the theme of the competition, and clarity of expression. Deadline for submission: 23.00 CET on 15 April 2022. Winners will be announced on 15 July 2022.

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