Pandora Report: 3.11.2022

Our major focus this week is on Russia’s continued claims that the US is supporting WMD development in Ukraine, ranging from claims lodged at DTRA CTR labs to assertions the US is helping the Ukrainians make a dirty bomb and chemical weapons. Multiple organs of the US government have indicated the Kremlin may use chemical or biological weapons or create a false flag operation to justify their claims about CTR and their invasion of Ukraine. We also discuss the ODNI’s release of the Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment, which includes a dedicated health security section this year. We have also included a number of fascinating new publications, including reports on the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in North Korea, China’s global health leadership ambitions, and a report discussing balancing protecting patients from infections and pandemic response in a hospital setting. Finally, we discuss updates on the pandemic as it remains far from over, death counts continue to soar in places like Hong Kong, and it presents an issue for Ukrainians fleeing to other countries.

Admin note: There will be no Pandora Report next week (3/18). The weekly report will resume on 3/25.

Russia Continues Its WMD Disinformation With Help As Concerns Grow About False Flag Operations

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Ministry of Defense (MOD) continued their barrage of claims alleging the US is helping the Ukrainians make WMDs, this time asserting the Russian military found evidence the Ukrainians staged an emergency clean-up to eradicate “…traces of the military-biological programme, in Ukraine, financed by the [US Department of Defense].” Major General Igor Konashenkov delivered this latest claim, which was quickly parroted by state media. He claimed pathogens such as the causative agents of plague, anthrax, and cholera were being made into bioweapons in US-funded laboratories throughout Ukraine. The MFA also claimed on March 6 that the Security Service of Ukraine and Azov Battalion “mined a reactor at an experimental nuclear facility at the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology” in order to “accuse Russia of creating an ecological catastrophe.” The Atlantic Council noted that this claim was based on a supposed alert from the Russian MOD and was supplemented by quotes from the state-owned outlet, Sputnik.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Tweet further alleging DTRA CTR-sponsored labs are bioweapons development facilities.

The Sino-Russian Relationship Isn’t Complicated Enough To Keep China Away From These Conspiracy Theories Apparently

Various Chinese outlets have already been sharing Russia’s narrative, however the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has more formally begun doing so as well. PRC MFA spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, made several comments at a press briefing this week accusing the US of violating the BWC at its labs in Ukraine. He accused the US of preventing multilateral verifications of these facilities from taking place before saying, “What is the real intention of the United States? What exactly has it done? These have always been the source of misgivings for the international community.” A description of DTRA’s CTR program’s accomplishments in its first 25 years is available here.

This is also not China’s first time making such claims. Throughout and following the Korean War, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and China claimed the United States used biological weapons on large scale in both China and North Korea. Though Soviet Central Committee documents indicating these claims were known to be false were declassified in 1998, both North Korea and China have continued to make these claims over the decades. As we previously covered, China has a number of nonsense claims they have made recently too, including assertions that the US engineered COVID-19 at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, that the US military introduced SARS-CoV-2 to Wuhan at the World Military Games in 2019, and even that the Omicron variant entered the country on a piece of mail from Canada.

This comes at a time when many are questioning the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship, as Xi Jinping tries to balance supporting Putin while shielding his country from the economic hardship and isolation the world has levied on Russia. It also remains unclear how much Chinese officials actually knew about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, though it is thought they had at least some level of advance knowledge and asked Putin to wait until after the Beijing Olympics. The two countries issued a joint statement last month, titled “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development”. It included a section on the BWC and claims the US is not fulfilling its obligations under the treaty, stating “The sides emphasize that domestic and foreign bioweapons activities by the United States and its allies raise serious concerns and questions for the international community regarding their compliance with the BWC.” It later stated, “The sides call on the U.S. and its allies to act in an open, transparent, and responsible manner by properly reporting on their military biological activities conducted overseas and on their national territory, and by supporting the resumption of negotiations on a legally binding BWC Protocol with an effective verification mechanism.”

Russian Outlets’ Lazy Attempts at Disinfo Somehow Still Have the Desired Effect

This all somehow managed to grow worse late this week as the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Over the course of the hearing, she stated “Ukraine has biological research facilities which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops…Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of. So we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.” She later stated that, should there be any of use of CBW in Ukraine, the Russians would be behind it. Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik were quick to re-share the unedited clip, which their followers concluded meant Nuland was confirming the US has biological weapons facilities in Ukraine. This was echoed by the likes of American conservative commentators Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens on their respective platforms. RT did not have to do any work to splice the clips of Nuland, create confusion about the context, or anything to get this clip spread around, viewed millions of times, and touted as proof the US was lying about having BW facilities in Ukraine. They simply played an accurate statement from the undersecretary and let their audiences do the rest. This has been a rapid progression from the situation a couple weeks ago, with Foreign Policy’s Justin Ling writing, “In less than two weeks, a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs has gone from a fringe QAnon Twitter account to becoming a major rallying cry for both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the U.S. far-right.”

In case it somehow is not clear enough already- the terms “biological research facilities” and “biolabs” do not mean the same thing as “biological weapons facilities”. A biological research facility just describes an institution or building where research is being conducted in some area of biology. Different types of hospital research labs, labs at zoos, numerous university labs, and all sorts of institutions can accurately be described as “biological research facilities”. As a result of the threat Russian forces pose to these facilities in Ukraine, the WHO advised Ukraine on Thursday to destroy high-threat pathogens from their public health labs to prevent “any potential spills” that could cause disease in the population.

Birds of Mass Destruction?

On Thursday, the Russian MOD released a video discussing the supposed results of their report about documents from “military biological activities of the USA in Ukraine”. The MOD included screenshots of various Power Point slides and materials from DTRA throughout the presentation, including an unclassified slide discussing the risk of emerging infections in insectivorous bats in Ukraine and Georgia and the need for interagency efforts to stem the threat to public health this poses. The video then makes a number of wild claims that make even some of the most ardent conspiracy theorists look comparatively poised and logically sound. Such claims include that the US wants to release migrating birds carrying highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza. Another claim is that a Project R-781 is focused on US efforts to use bats as carriers for biological weapons. This is simply non-sensical. The US does not conduct bioweapons R&D, it certainly would not need to do so in Ukraine if it wanted to, and releasing birds, bats, and insects carrying highly infectious diseases would likely harm the US as well as any intended target. It is highly unlikely the Russians believe any of this to be true and they are just using this as an attempt to keep up the pressure in their disinformation firehose and create frustrations and tensions where possible.

A Note On Biosafety Levels

Some of those re-sharing these posts from Russian outlets have also focused their attention on the biosafety levels (BSL) of the CTR labs in Ukraine, claiming they must be making bioweapons because they have certain BSL designations. Those making these claims seem to either focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 designation, somehow concluding this means the Ukrainian labs must also be at this level and, by extension, they are making bioweapons. Others focus on the term “high containment lab”, either assuming or purposefully deceitfully claiming that term means the labs are BSL-4 labs by definition. First, Ukraine does not have a BSL-4 facility. Second, the term “high containment lab” refers to both BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities. Third, many of these claims are based on an out-of-context clip of a chapter of a National Academies Press publication– “Biosecurity Challenges of the Global Expansion of High-Containment Biological Laboratories: Summary of a Workshop”. This specific chapter discusses local resources and regulations for high containment labs in Ukraine in which the authors discuss the differences in how Ukrainian labs are rated (lab designation in Ukraine is inverted, so 1 is the highest risk and 4 is the lowest) and why this makes it especially important to consider what specific permits Ukrainian labs have that allow them to handle certain pathogens. Furthermore, the biosafety level of a lab is not an indicator of what that facility is doing. Rather, BSLs are sets of biocontainment precautions required to work with biological agents in laboratories. They are sometimes called pathogen, protection, or containment levels, the latter of which uses the designations P1-P4 instead.

For context, BSL-4 is the highest level of precautions and is used for work with agents that can easily be transmitted as aerosols in the lab, cause severe to fatal disease in humans, and for which there are no available vaccines or treatments. Some BSL-4 agents include Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, and Nipah viruses. The other levels can vary in terms of which pathogens are handled in them depending on the conditions and the work being conducted, such as if there were a high chance an agent would become aerosolized while being worked with, which would necessitate a higher BSL. Common BSL-3 agents include SARS classic, SARS-CoV-2, MERS-CoV, Rift Valley Fever virus, and even Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. Some examples of potential BSL-2 agents include pathogenic strains of E. coli, Hepatitits A, B, and C viruses, HIV, and even prions, which transmit diseases like Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (the human version of Mad Cow Disease). Things like non-pathogenic strains of E. coli and different types of Staphylococcus are frequently handled in BSL-1, including in labs at secondary education institutions.

While abiding by federal law and research guidelines, different institutions in the US place different agents at different BSL levels based on their facility’s capabilities, what they plan to do with an agent, and what risks may come of such work. You can see Stanford University’s list and guidelines here, for example. The Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories, the document that helps labs make protocol-driven risk assessments and determine what BSL they should work in is also freely available online

Furthermore, a BSL-4 designation does not imply the lab is government-run, and certainly does not mean it is necessarily doing offensive research. Using the US as an example, of the 13 BSL-4 labs in the US, three are housed at universities – Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, Georgia State University’s High Containment Core, and the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory. Kansas State University also has its BSL-4 National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction. Fewer than 1/5 of BSL-4 facilities globally are actually defense laboratories and two are even privately-owned, according to Global Bio Labs. USA Today also found a few years ago that there are around 200 BSL-3 labs (at least) in the US, meaning many Americans live near one. Meanwhile, the labs in Ukraine are below BSL-4 and they are well-established centers providing important public health research and services. In fact, the closest BSL-4s to Ukraine are the Republican Research and Practical Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Minsk, Belarus and two facilities in Hungary. Furthermore, the US has been open from the beginning about the purpose and scope of the Lugar-Nunn Cooperative Threat Reduction program as well. And while just one-quarter of countries with BSL-4 labs score well on best practice indicators for biosafety and biosecurity, the Lugar-Nunn program has helped ensure partner countries do meet these requirements consistently, limiting the chances of accidents.

Is This All a Set Up For a False Flag Operation? The US Government Weighs In

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented on this ongoing issue on Twitter earlier in the week, stating, “We took note of Russia’s false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories.” She re-iterated that this is something Russia and China have done repeatedly, adding that the US is in full-compliance with its obligations under the BWC and CWC. She also stated, “It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny.” She concluded with a warning that Russia might look to use chemical or biological weapons to create a false flag operation, writing, “Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s tweets concerning Russian allegations the US is supporting chemical and biological weapons development in Ukraine.

Finally, the US State Department also released an official statement on the Kremlin’s claims. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price’s delivered the following statement:

The Kremlin is intentionally spreading outright lies that the United States and Ukraine are conducting chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine.  We have also seen PRC officials echo these conspiracy theories.  This Russian disinformation is total nonsense and not the first time Russia has invented such false claims against another country.  Also, these claims have been debunked conclusively and repeatedly over many years.

As we have said all along, Russia is inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine. The United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine, it is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, and it does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere. It is Russia that has active chemical and biological weapons programs and is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention.

Finally, Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very crimes that Russia itself is perpetrating. These tactics are an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attacks on Ukraine. We fully expect Russia to continue to double down on these sorts of claims with further unfounded allegations.

While it remains unclear if the Russians are interested in using CBW or trying to stage a false flag operation, there are still inherent dangers to these types of weapons that dissuade actors from their use, though some still certainly do use these kinds of weapons. Furthermore, as Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Jez Littlewood pointed out in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this week, this could also end up damaging the Biological Weapons Convention, set for its five-year review later this year. They also rightfully point out that the US identified a number of countries as BW threats, including the DPRK, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Iraq, the latter of which is arguably the most infamous intelligence failure of the US this century. Few could forget the images of Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up a model vial of anthrax spores during a meeting of the UNSC on Iraq’s alleged WMD program in 2003. While this assessment was not just based on US intelligence alone, this was later something he described as a “blot” on his career, stating “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.” While the US has not been perfect, the labs under DTRA’s CTR program have demonstrated time and time again that they are legitimately conducting peaceful research and that they provide benefits to the public health of the region.

Other Helpful Resources On This Topic:

  • EUvsDisinfo released this week’s Disinfo Review, Weapons of Mass Delusion covering these efforts, finding that a quarter of Russia’s disinformation tropes pertain to the lie that the US has secret labs encircling the country.
  • Here is the page on the Biological Threat Reduction Program on the US Embassy in Ukraine’s website. Many conspiracy theorists, right-wing American pundits, and Russian outlets claim this page was taken down, yet it is still live and has all the PDFs discussing the diagnostic labs in Lviv, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipro, and Vinnytsia that some insist are gone from the site.
  • Here is PolitiFact’s fact check of the first few claims in this new series lodged by Russia.

US Surgeon General Releases RFI on COVID-19 Disinformation

On a related note, to help combat the effects of disinformation in the United States, the US Surgeon General, VADM Vivek Murthy (USPHS), has issued a formal request for information to major tech companies, asking them to send data and information on the prevalence of COVID-19 mis-/disinformation on their platforms. This is part of the Biden administration’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and companies will have until May 2 to comply with the RFI. Dr. Murthy also has asked healthcare professionals to submit their testimonies about how COVID-19 mis- and disinformation have impacted their patients and communities. This comes as a physician group, No License for Disinformation, and their calls for state medical board to take disciplinary action against physicians who deliberately spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic gain more traction.

WHO Issues Situation Report on the Russo-Ukrainian War

As the news has been filled with reports of Russian attacks on civilians and healthcare institutions, including the bombing of a maternity ward and children’s hospital in Mariupol, the WHO has released its first situation report on Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion. The report indicates over 18 million of Ukraine’s population have been affected, including 1.2 million refugees, 160,000 internally displaced person, at least 553 civilian injuries, and 249 civilian deaths. It notes that conflict related trauma and injuries are currently exacerbated by a lack of access to healthcare facilities as well as a lack of medicine and supplies. Importantly, it also explains there is an excess of morbidity and death from common illnesses such as noncommunicable diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.) and acute maternal, newborn, and child illnesses. The spread of infectious diseases is on the rise in Ukraine as well, including COVID-19, measles, polio, TB, HIV and diarrheal diseases. This is due to widespread destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure, inadequate vaccination coverage, lack of access to medicines and medical care, safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene as well as population movements and crowding. Ukraine faced a polio outbreak and was just pulling out of weeks of record high COVID-19 case counts when Russia invaded on 24 February. Ukraine has a relatively low vaccination rate and the government was struggling with vaccine hesitancy prior to the invasion. The WHO is continuing to monitor the situation and trying to help the Ukrainian Ministry of Health in coordinating the health response.

World Surpasses 6 Million COVID-19 Deaths As the Pandemic Drags On

The pandemic is very much not over, with the world surpassing 6.03 million official COVID-19 deaths Thursday. Worse yet, these are only confirmed deaths, with the true count likely being much higher. This horror is inescapable in places like Hong Kong right now, where the death count is continuing to soar as officials race to test all 7.5 million Hong Kongers three times this month to try and maintain the mainland’s zero-COVID strategy. Death rates also remain high in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and other Eastern European countries, which does not bode well with over 1 million Ukrainian refugees flooding in to these places. Despite this, a 136-page report written by two dozen experts, many of whom advised President Biden, was released this week entitled, “Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap to Living with Covid.” This report argues the US pandemic response should shift from being focused only on COVID-19 to focusing on a system where prevention, mitigation, and treatment efforts are focused on a number of respiratory illnesses, including influenza and COVID-19. They do stress this “next normal” will not be like 2019, but that this is how to best deal with pandemic fatigue and more diverse health threats as case counts in the US decline.

US Intelligence Community Releases Annual Threat Assessment

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has released its unclassified 2022 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (IC). This year’s assessment includes an entire section dedicated to health security, covering infectious diseases and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, biological weapons, and anomalous health incidents (AHIs). Key assessments include that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue to strain health systems, possibly aiding the spread of other diseases; that countries around the world remain vulnerable to the emergence of a new novel pathogen that could cause a worse pandemic; that economic fallout from the pandemic will continue to challenge governments and hinder human development, particularly in the developing world; and that shortcomings in pandemic response may inspire adversaries to consider developing or using biological weapons.

The brief sub-section on biological weapons assesses, “Global shortcomings in preparedness for the pandemic and questions surrounding the origins of the COVID-19
virus and biosecurity may inspire some adversaries to consider options related to biological weapons developments.” It states that advances in dual-use technology like bioinformatics, synthetic biology, and genomic editing, could help enable the development of new bioweapons that are able to complicate detection, attribution, and treatment. It also addresses ongoing efforts by China, Iran, and Russia to tout their individual and collaborative efforts to improve biosecurity while also making false claims about US laboratories pertaining to the origin of COVID-19, biosafety breaches, vaccines, and bioweapons. It concludes that this messaging will likely be amplified ahead of the Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which is held every five years and is schedule to convene in mid-2022.

The sub-section on AHIs states that, “IC agencies assess with varying levels of confidence that most reported health incidents can be explained by medical conditions, or environmental or technical factors and that it is unlikely that a foreign actor—including Russia—is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign involving hundreds of incidents without detection.” This is in reference to reports of Havana Syndrome, a condition first reported in 2016 by US and Canadian diplomats serving in Cuba with symptoms including ringing in the ears, vertigo and nausea, and cognitive difficulties. There are a number of speculations about what caused this, including theories that the Russians are using electromagnetic energy and ultrasound to target US and Canadian personnel.

This section of the threat assessment also summarizes some of the findings of 2021’s Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins, indicating that four IC elements assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 was a result of zoonotic spillover while one assesses with moderate confidence that it was the result of a laboratory-associated incident. The same assessment also addressed concerns the virus was a bioweapons or genetically engineered, writing “We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.”

Three reports that Nature announced in February 2022 discussing SARS-CoV-2 origins have caused quite a stir recently as well. Two of the reports traced the original outbreak of COVID-19 back to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which sold live animals, in Wuhan, Hubei Province. A third report suggests that SARS-CoV-2 did spill over from animals- potentially those at the Huanan Market- to humans at least twice in November and December 2019. These reports include genetic analyses of samples collected from the market and infected people in December 2019 and January 2020 in addition to geolocation analyses connecting many of the samples to a specific portion of the market where live animals were sold. Important to note, however, is that these are still preprints and have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals, though some argue they do add more weight to the idea that the pandemic started at the Huanan Market despite not being definitive.

GAO’s Chris P. Currie Testifies Before Senate Committee on Opportunities to Improve National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation

The Director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, Chris Currie, testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Opportunities to Address National Strategy and Programmatic Challenges pertaining to biodefense. His testimony addressed GAO studies in this area from December 2009 through August 2021, focused on efforts to implement the National Biodefense Strategy and strengthen biodefense preparedness, as well as ongoing challenges to DHS’s biosurveillance and biodetection efforts. Currie stated that GAO determined the US lacks “a set of defined capabilities for responding to nationally significant biological incidents, an interagency process for assessing and communicating exercise priorities, an interagency process for agencies to consistently report on the
capabilities exercised in after-action reviews, and routine monitoring at the interagency level of exercises and real-world incidents in order to evaluate lessons learned across the government, identify patterns and possible root causes for systemic challenges, and make recommendations to address these challenges.” He also discussed pathways to changing the National Biosurveillance Integration Center’s charge, DHS’s struggles to justify updating detection systems rendering it over-focused on aerosolized attacks, and how DHS can mitigate risk in Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21) acquisition. Read his statement and the GAO recommendations here.

Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit Sees CEPI Secure $1.5 Billion in Funding

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) secured $1.535 billion in funding over the course of the UK’s Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit this week. This is in support of CEPI’s goal of being able to produce a new vaccine for newly detected COVID-19 variants within 100 days of detection. This 100 day goal relies on accelerating global genomic surveillance to quickly identify new pandemic threats. The UK pledged $211 million, Indonesia (current G20 President) gave $5 million, and the US pledged $150 million, among other donations from other top donors including the governments of Japan, Norway, Germany, and Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Wellcome. This did not fully cover CEPI’s goal of $3.5 billion over the next five years, though it certainly puts them well on their way. According to CEPI’s statement, “CEPI’s plan will reduce the risk posed by epidemics and pandemics by developing vaccines for known disease threats (such as Lassa fever, MERS and Nipah virus), and build on the scientific advances made during COVID-19 to prepare in advance for ‘Disease X’- the threat of an unknown pathogen with pandemic potential.” Read USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s statement on the funding and push to deploy new vaccines for new COVID-19 variants within 100 days of detection here.

RUSI Occasional Paper- Remote Assessment of North Korea’s Chemical Weapons, Feasible or Not?

The Royal United Services Institute has released a new report, “Remote Assessment of North Korea’s Chemical Weapons, Feasible or Not?” discussing how open source research and remote sensing technologies might be used to assess North Korea’s CW capability. To do this, the authors use a case study approach focusing on the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in South Pyongan Province. Their research process included gathering data and information to build a case study that could be used to test this approach, analysis and assessment of the chemical activities and determination of whether those activities have relevance for CW production, and analysis of the overlap between the signatures of chemical activity and CW specifics at the Namhung Complex, followed by examination of how remote sensing might be able to support further assessment of CW capability. They conclude that the Namhung Complex is not a site used purely for CW production, but that it does likely retain activities relevant for CW. They determine for an open-source approach to be of the most value, the method would have to be replicated across the DPRK’s chemical industry. Furthermore, they state analyses should consider CW production as a network instead of focusing too much on individual sites. They conclude that, “…while remote sensing tools will not be a silver bullet in assessing the status, scope and scale of North Korea’s CW programme, they can be used to refine hypotheses about North Korea’s CW capability.”

APIC Releases New Recommendations for Balancing Patient Safety and Pandemic Response

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) has released its new call to action, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Recommendations for Balancing Patient Safety and Pandemic Response, a Call to Action on Improving our National Strategy for Pandemic Preparedness and Patient Safety”. It outlines a number of recommendations and steps to implement them including: developing next-generation universal personal protective equipment; normalizing the use of masks by the general public during times of increased infectious disease threats; addressing supply chain failures, including personnel with IPC expertise on healthcare system incident command and emergency response teams; putting properly trained personnel in long-term care, nursing homes, and other high-risk settings; building and implementing infection prevention and control surge capacity; increasing capacity for testing and contact tracing; ensuring rapid data sharing and interoperability around infection surveillance data; establishing strategies and actions to build disease confidence; and funding pandemic preparedness workforce capacity training.

Biodefense PhD program alumna and current Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School, Dr. Saskia Popescu, co-authored a portion of this report, “Managing Communications During a Pandemic”.

CFR- The COVID-19 Pandemic and China’s Global Health Leadership

Dr. Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, has released this new CFR report discussing China’s attempts to gain prominence in global health leadership and opportunities for the United States to re-assert itself in this area. In it he discusses China’s earlier attempts to turn its comparative success in managing COVID-19 into taking center stage in global leadership. However, he explains that its initial mishandling of the outbreak undermined the country’s international reputation, harming its ability to project soft power and strengthen its international image. Recent developments with highly transmissible variants have also challenged China’s draconian outbreak response measures and called into questions the efficacy of Chinese vaccines. He cautions the country is also heading towards a wider immunity gap between its population and the rest of the world, writing “The zero-COVID strategy will be extremely costly and highly dangerous: a small omicron outbreak in China could quickly develop into multiple larger outbreaks across the country, sending shock waves through society and the economy and intensifying the disruption of global supply chains and inflation pressures worldwide.” He concludes with a number of recommendations for the Biden administration, urging that the US should cooperate with Beijing in this area when it is helpful (such as in disease surveillance, response capacity-building, and vaccine distribution) while also scaling up US health diplomacy efforts and forming a bloc with allies to increase the WHO’s authority. This report is available here from CFR.

Insidious Insights: Implications of Viral Vector Engineering for Pathogen Enhancement

Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, has co-authored this new article in Gene Therapy. In it, the authors discuss how viral vector engineering offers enormous benefits, but brings a dual use risk pertaining to pathogen enhancement. They explain that optimizing viral vectors and their properties will prove important for improving the effectiveness and safety of clinical gene therapy, but there are particular risks in which reliable and generalizable methods of immune evasion could increase viral fitness, potentially causing a new pandemic. They write, “High potential for misuse is associated with (1) the development of universal genetic elements for immune modulation, (2) specific insights on capsid engineering for antibody evasion applicable to viruses with pandemic potential, and (3) the development of computational methods to inform capsid engineering.” They explain a number of ways this could be mitigated, including prioritizing non-viral delivery systems, before concluding with recommendations about how this data should be published until a technical solution for preventing malicious access to these viral engineering tools is established.  

Commemoration of the 34th Anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Attack on Halabja

March 16th, 2022 marks the 34th anniversary of the chemical attack on Halabjah. On this occasion, this event aims at commemorating all victims of chemical weapons and raising awareness about chemical weapons and chemical weapons disarmament. It is organized by Rotary Peace Fellows Alumni Association and World Beyond War. It is open to all interested individuals. Speakers are prominent activists, including Dr. Paul Walker (Coordinator of the CWC), who have worked in CW-related fields for years. Their presentations will be followed by Q&A and one minute of silence. This virtual event is on March 12 at 4:00 pm BMT. Register here.

Building Public Trust in Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (PHEPR) Science: A Workshop

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is hosting a two-day public workshop on March 29th and 30th to examine issues of building public knowledge of and trust in the public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) science enterprise. Workshop discussants and participants will specifically:

  • Examine why the topic of public trust (and trustworthiness, credibility, confidence in, among others) is important in PHEPR science and develop a shared understanding of its importance and its relationship to other factors that contribute to social cohesion in public health emergencies.
  • Explore key elements of PHEPR science communication and generate actionable communications strategies based on recent experiences.
  • Generate actionable strategies and approaches for building/maintaining trust, communicating PHEPR science and the scientific process in the face of uncertainty and in response to the recent decline in perceived credibility of federal, state, and local agencies.
  • Examine the ways in which diverse demographic groups experience PHEPR science differently and generate strategies and approaches for building trust in PHEPR science and the scientific process that is tailored to these varied experiences.

Find more information and register here.

Open Source Technology Tools For United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 Implementation

The Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) is hosting the webinar “Open Source Technology Tools for United Nations Security Council 1540 Implementation,” sponsored by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) through voluntary contributions received from the Government of the Republic of Korea. The event will feature an expert panel discussion and demonstration of open source tools and resources available to all UN Member States that can help strategic trade stakeholders gather information, assess risks, make policy and authorization decisions, and take effective enforcement measures. Before the event, registered participants will receive links to the resources and publications that will be discussed by the event panelists. The event’s focus is on tools that are publicly accessible. The objective of the webinar is to compile use cases for these tools as well as demonstrate to Member States and their stakeholders the availability, accessibility, and value of open source instruments for strengthening UNSCR 1540. This event will be useful for both public and private sector decision-makers who play a role in  UNSCR 1540 implementation measures.

Panelists include Jason Arterburn (Program Director for State-Sponsored Threats at C4ADS), Dr. Richard T. Cupitt (Senior Fellow and Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program at the Henry L. Stimson Center), and Peter Heine (Senior Advisor in Global Security Technology and Policy at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory). This event will occur March 23 at 10:00 AM EST. RSVP here.

From ASPR: Comments Requested on 2023-2026 National Health Security Strategy

Through a Federal Register Notice (FRN) published by ASPR on February 14, 2022, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is soliciting public comments to provide information regarding threats and challenges to national health security, and promising practices to address the same. The information provided will be used to inform the development of the 2023-2026 National Health Security Strategy (NHSS). The NHSS is a four-year strategy that establishes a strategic approach to strengthening the country’s ability to prevent, detect, assess, prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from disasters and emergencies. The upcoming iteration of the NHSS (2023-2026) presents a unique opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and focus the nation’s priorities to address evolving public health challenges and be better prepared for future health security threats. For more information, please view the full FRN posted to the Federal Register. Comments will be accepted March 25, 2022, electronically to nhss@hhs.gov with “2023-2026 NHSS Comments” in the subject line. Comments may be placed in the body of the email or in an attachment to the email using a standard document format.

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