Pandora Report: 3.25.2022

We’re back! We kick off this issue with a very special update from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists before getting into the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense’s recent meeting discussing the future of biodefense and biosecurity, more updates, and a number of great new publications and events to attend. We also included a brief update on why we were away last week, featuring plenty of photos of animals to brighten everyone’s day. A list of resources, updates, and faculty media features regarding Russia’s WMD disinformation is also at the end of this issue following our normal announcement section.

Has the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gone Rogue?

According to the Onion, America’s Finest News Source, our friends at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are demanding a whopping $10 trillion in unmarked bills, otherwise they will set their Doomsday Clock to midnight, destroying the Earth. Dr. Rachel Bronson, President and CEO of the Bulletin, was definitely quoted saying, “Citizens of Earth, we have long served as stewards of your puny globe, safeguarding it from destruction with our Doomsday Clock, and today we demand you recognize our sacrifice with a simple monetary donation—say, $10 trillion?” in a message to all UN member states. She continued with, “Since time immemorial, we overseers at the Bulletin have been responsible for averting countless catastrophes with this all-powerful timekeeping instrument, and now we ask: Will you be the generation that allows humanity to be extinguished for a measly few trillion dollars? You have heard our demands. My finger is already on the minute hand. Now what shall you do?” The Onion also reported in 2016 that the Bulletin moved the clock to 60 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to global catastrophe, following Arby’s threats to create a three-cheese jalapeno beef’n bacon melt. The clock currently sits at 100 seconds to midnight because of factors like “negative trends in nuclear and biological weapons, climate change, and a variety of disruptive technologies—all exacerbated by a corrupted information ecosphere that undermines rational decision making,” so they really took the beef’n bacon melt to heart.

North Korea Conducts First ICBM Test Since 2017

Japan’s Defense Ministry announced yesterday that a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. North Korea has not conducted such a test since 2017, during the “fire and fury” days of the Trump administration. Japanese State Minister of Defense Makoto Oniki told the press the missile likely was in the air for approximately 71 minutes before landing about 150 km west of the Oshima Peninsula off Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost major island. The missile was later confirmed to be a Hwasong-17, which is thought to be 82 feet long and is estimated to be the largest road-mobile ballistic missile system in the world. North Korea revealed the Hwasong-17 at a military parade in October 2020, with this week’s test launch from an airport near Pyongyang being its first full-range test, according to ABC News. Kyodo News cited an unnamed source in the Japanese government who claimed this might be the closest a DPRK missile has ever come to the Japanese mainland. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, currently attending a meeting with G7 leaders in Brussels, strongly condemned the launch and stated he would seek to work with G7 members in formulating a response to the test that violates UN Security Council resolutions. While Kim Jong Un declared a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs in 2018, he appeared to rescind it last January in instructing officials to “rapidly examine the issue on resuming” such testing, according to NK News. A likely new ICBM base was discovered earlier this year in Hwapyong-gun, just 25 km from the Chinese border in the north of the country, further indicating the moratorium was likely terminated. DPRK state media released propaganda videos dramatizing the massive missile’s launch, one of which quickly drew attention online for its over-the-top style (at 1:08 in the linked video). Korean Central News Agency (the state agency of the DPRK) announced this test was guided by Kim Jong Un in pursuit of a “powerful tool for nuclear attack” aimed to “contain” the United States.

Biodefense Students Conduct Vector Surveillance in Kenya for Spring Break

Biodefense Program students Michelle Grundahl (MS Student) and Danyale C. Kellogg (PhD Student and Managing Editor of the Pandora Report) recently returned from a trip to the Mpala Research Centre outside of Nanyuki, Kenya. On this trip, they assisted researchers working on grants under the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) and the Remote Emerging Disease Intelligence Network (REDI-NET). Grundahl explained some details of the trip, saying “Our focus was to support Mason professor, Dr. Von Fricken. His work in Kenya involves surveillance of vector-borne diseases using a One Health approach. Starting on day one, we had the opportunity to collect water and soil samples, leeches, and ticks…The 10 students on this trip were intensely involved in setting up laboratory equipment and working through protocols to support the REDI-NET surveillance program.” The pair were joined by a number of Kenyan scientists who are also involved with the project through the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. Grundahl and Kellogg previously attended the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties course, offered by USAMRIID and USAMRICD, together in the fall of 2021.

Meeting of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense- The Biological Threat Expanse: Current and Future Challenges to National Biodefense

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense met on Tuesday to discuss the expanding landscape of current and future biological threats, the roles and responsibilities of the federal government in assessing and preparing for various biological threats, and biological weapons, bioterrorism, and biological arms races with the public. The Commission explains, “In its 2015 bipartisan report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, the Commission described biological threats to the Nation and made 33 recommendations to optimize U.S. efforts to prevent, deter, prepare for, detect, respond to, attribute, recover from, and mitigate intentionally introduced, accidentally released, and naturally occurring biological events. Seven years later, the U.S. experience with COVID-19 continues to validate our original findings and the need for an Apollo Program for Biodefense as biological threats to the Nation continue to expand and increase.”

Biodefense Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, also testified during this event, providing insight on the future of biodefense (time stamp- 3:47:22). On the risks posed by dual use research of concern and effective biosafety and biosecurity risk management, Koblentz concluded: “Whether or not the current pandemic was caused by a laboratory accident, it does not mean the next pandemic won’t be. Indeed, efforts to prevent and prepare for the next pandemic, ironically, include a range of activities that serve to increase the risk posed by an accident. Given that existing national and international systems to ensure that such research is conducted safely, securely, and responsibly are already inadequate, we need a new global architecture for biorisk management that can address the growing challenges we face in this domain.” The event recording is available here.

Omicron Subvariant BA.2 Updates

The BA.2 subvariant, AKA “stealth Omicron,” of COVID-19, which spreads up to 80% faster than the original Omicron variant, was found to have doubled in the US over the last two weeks, making it the dominant subvariant in the country right now, according the CNBC. Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News this week that BA.2, which was already dominant in some European countries, is 50% to 60% more transmissible than Omicron. The University of Minnesota’s CIDRAP noted that, “Currently BA.2 makes up roughly one third of COVID-19 cases in the United States but will likely overtake Omicron this spring,” in an article from March 21. “When you look at the cases, they do not appear to be any more severe and they do not appear to evade immune responses either from vaccines or prior infection,” Fauci said. The WHO announced too that BA.2 has taken over as the dominant strain circulating globally. The Food and Drug Administration also announced on March 21 that the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet on April 6 to discuss boosters in light of Pfizer and Moderna’s submissions for EUAs for fourth doses of their COVID-19 vaccines.

Armed Services Committees’ Leadership Announces Selections for National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology

The leadership of the of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced their appointments to the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology, which was established by Sec. 1091 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). The National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology will conduct a thorough review of how advances in emerging biotechnology and related technologies will shape current and future activities of the Department of Defense, provide an interim report to the President of the United States and the Armed Services Committees within one year, and submit a final unclassified report within two years to the President and the committees, including recommendations for action by Congress and the federal government. Twelve appointed members will make up the Commission.

The leaders of the Armed Services Committees named the following appointees: Senator Alex Padilla, the Honorable Dov S. Zakheim (Senior Advisor at CSIS and former Undersecretary of Defense), Congressman Ro Khanna, Paul Arcangeli (current Staff Director of the House Armed Services Committee, set to retire on April 1), Senator Todd Young, Dr. Alexander Titus (former  Assistant Director for Biotechnology within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering), Congresswoman Stephanie Bice, and Dr. Jason Kelly (co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks).

SARS-CoV-2: International Investigation Under the WHO or BWC

Drs. Mirko Himmel and Stefan Frey recently published their policy brief article in Frontiers in Public Health discussing current debates about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and the complexities of the political and biological elements of this debate. They offer recommendations for potential courses of action under the World Health Organization’s umbrella and in respect to the Biological Weapons Convention. They provide insight to how a number of complex issues might be resolved, particularly as China continues to delay the investigation into the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by withholding evidence.

UNIDIR- Potential Outcomes of the Ninth BWC Review Conference

The UN Institute for Disarmament Research’s recently released this report authored by Dr. Jez Littlewood. It aims to provide “a forthright assessment of the risks, benefits, and financial implications of four different potential Review Conference outcomes,” including very limited, status quo, forward-looking, and negotiation outcomes. It was released in preparation for the Ninth Biological Weapons Review Conference, currently scheduled for August of this year, where States parties will have the opportunity to advance biological disarmament and determine the future course of this treaty. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs recently released this primer on the BWC too, covering the history of negotiations of the treaty, its current state, and the importance of this treaty in the modern world.

“Insidious Insights: Implications of Viral Vector Engineering for Pathogen Enhancement”

Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and co-authors recently published this article in Gene Therapy. In it they discuss the dangers of optimizing viral vectors and their properties, despite the benefits this would provide to clinical gene therapy. 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 ultimately recommend that “…computational vector engineering and the publication of associated code and data be limited to AAV [(adeno-associated viruses)] until a technical solution for preventing malicious access to viral engineering tools has been established.”

CSIS Global Health Policy Center Coronavirus Crisis Update

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center recently released a new episode of its podcast, Live From Munich: Dr. Richard Hatchett “Pandemic Preparedness Needs to Be Viewed as a Security Challenge”. Dr. Hatchett reminds listeners that having just had a pandemic does not prevent outbreak of another, and that pandemic preparedness needs to be “viewed as a security challenge, not as a health challenge, not as a development challenge”. He points to lessons in vaccine manufacturing and financing arrangements that incentivize disease surveillance that can better prepare us for the next pandemic. “Many of the high-income countries see the value from a geopolitical and security perspective in making these investments. The challenge for the long term, obviously, will be whether these facilities can be successful, sustainable, and be sustained.”

WHO- “Emerging Trends and Technologies: A Horizon Scan for Global Public Health”

The World Health Organization released this report earlier this month identifying 15 new and emerging technologies and scientific advances that could have major impacts on global health in the coming decades. To do so, it “presents the findings of a global horizon scan, conducted by a group of international experts, on emerging technologies and trends relevant to global public health conducted in 2020 and 2021.” Identified issues include vaccine distribution, apps for disease screening, addressing dis- and misinformation, and machine learning for antibiotic discovery. Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London recently co-authored an article addressing issues similar to the latter in Nature Machine Learning discussing the dangers of using AI in drug development.

Curious Coincidence: A Journey To the Origins of COVID-19

MIT Technology Review released a new episode of their podcast discussing challenges in determining the origins of the pandemic, this time focusing on what is known about the disease’s emergence in Wuhan in late 2019. Hosted by investigative reporter Antonio Regalado, Curious Coincidence dives into the mysterious origins of COVID-19 by examining China’s trade in wild animals, the labs doing sensitive research on dangerous pathogens, and questions of whether a lab accident may have touched off a global pandemic. Dr. Laura H. Kahn also recently discussed these issues in her piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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

From the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to wildfires and floods, public health emergencies are becoming increasingly common and complex. Public trust in public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) science is key to a quick and effective response. Join the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a two-day public workshop on March 29th and 30th to examine issues of building public knowledge of and trust in PHEPR science enterprise–the institutions, the research process, and the researchers and practitioners. Learn more and register here.

Inaugural Public Meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Seniors and Disasters and National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters

Join Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell along with Assistant Secretary for Aging and Acting Administrator for Community Living Alison Barkoff, Wednesday, March 30 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET for the inaugural meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Seniors and Disasters (NACSD) and National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters (NACIDD). Advanced registration for this meeting is required and can be accessed, along with additional meeting information, through the online event page. During this joint meeting, committee members will be sworn into service and begin a national discussion with federal subject matter experts on the challenges, opportunities, and priorities in meeting the unique health needs of older adult populations and people with disabilities during and after disasters and public health emergencies.

WHO Outreach and Engagement Consultant Job Opening Announcement

The purpose of this consultancy is to provide technical  input related to the projects of the emerging technologies, research prioritization and support (EPS) unit on dual-use research of concern as part of the “Reducing Biological Proliferation Risks Posed by Dual Use Research of Concern – (DURC)” and end to end research process optimization as part of the project “Strengthening WHO processes to accelerate timelines linking R&D with access”. The work will advance the implementation of the corresponding work plans of the two projects. Due to the COVID restrictions, the consultant will perform the work remotely from his/her home location. The consultant will need to be available during Geneva office hours (9h00-18h00 CET). Learn more and apply here.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. Below are some highlights from the last couple of weeks:

Have You Been Lied to About Ukrainian Biolabs? 

Drs. Filippa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz recently hosed this even on Twitter Space discussing the ongoing bioweapon claims targeting labs in Ukraine. A recording of the event is available here and the transcript can be found here.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

DTRA has released this fact sheet discussing its support for Ukrainian labs and other key facts, including details of Russia’s illegal and dangerous takeover of multiple Ukrainian-owned labs. They have also released a YouTube video discussing the program and the beneficial work it has done and continues to do in disarmament and public health.

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

The PRIF Blog published this piece explaining and refuting Russia’s BW claims while also addressing concerns that these claims could be used as a pretext for a chemical weapons attack against Ukraine. Read more here.

Council on Strategic Risks

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell at CSR authored a piece, “The Deeply Dangerous Spread of Russian Disinformation on Biological Weapons,” discussing the implications of Russia’s debunked claims. Of the idea that Russia might use WMDs in this war, they quote Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, writing “If Russia does commit such atrocities, “There would be a very strong and united international response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, both of which are banned by the chemical and biological weapons conventions,” Andy Weber emphasized.”

Nuclear Threat Initiative

Hayley Severance and Jacob H. Heckles with NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs team explained some of the dangers of this Russian propaganda, focusing on the division and confusion it sows and the potential for this to later allow Russia to be viewed as justified in their invasion and war against Ukraine. Check out the piece, “Russian Propaganda Established a Dangerous, Permissive Environment,” here.

Congressional Research Service

CRS, the public policy research institute of the United States Congress, released a CRS Insight addressing members’ of Congress questions and concerns regarding these laboratories. It discusses the dangers combat operations pose to these facilities and potential courses of action Congress might consider taking as a result of these issues.

CBW Events Ukraine FAQ Page

CBW Events has created a one-stop-shop for all your questions on this issue here. CBW Events is “a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare and its prevention are developed.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz Was Recently Quoted in Numerous Outlets Discussing These Claims

Dr. Koblentz has been working overtime taking interviews to help combat this disinformation. Below are some of the quotes he provided within the last couple of weeks across various news outlets and debunking sites.

Daily Mail– “The 46 US Labs in Ukraine and the $200 Pentagon Program That Sparked a Propaganda War: How Ex-Soviet Facilities Adopted by America That House Pathogens Prompted Kremlin Bioweapons Claims in Putin’s Back Yard”

  • “‘These are all public health and veterinary labs,’ said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, according to Poynter. ‘None of them have been involved in biological warfare’.” 

The Washington Post– “A Legacy of ‘Secrecy and Deception’: Why Russia Clings to an Outlawed Chemical Arsenal”

  • “Novichok’s distinctive chemical formula differed from that of other known nerve agents, and because of this, Novichok was initially omitted from the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of banned substances. Russia could thus continue to tinker with the new weapon without technically violating their treaty obligations, said Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.”
  • ““Russia didn’t just inherit the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal; they also inherited the secrecy and deception that surrounded the program,” Koblentz said.”

Axios Science “Why Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use Are Hard to Investigate”

“What to watch: Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, says that, rather than use a chemical or biological weapon for an attack in Ukraine, there is a risk “Russia will invent or stage an event, claim it as an atrocity and use it domestically for escalating their commitment to the conflict.”

  • “Even if the U.S. and Ukrainians could expose this was staged or a hoax, on some level, the disinformation would be out there, and some would throw up their hands and say they don’t know and are going to sit it out,” he says.
  • Another concern for Koblentz is that unsubstantiated claims that bioweapons are being developed in Ukrainian labs that study and surveil pathogens like Crimean hemorrhagic fever could damage international cooperation on biosecurity and pathogen surveillance among labs around the world.

What’s next: The BCW is scheduled to meet in August to discuss how its mechanisms for resolving concerns about biological weapons compliance could be strengthened.

  • There had been signs over the past few years that parties may be willing to agree to measures that would facilitate verifying whether parties are complying. But “now there is no way it will be a constructive diplomatic event,” Koblentz says. “It’s been sacrificed for geopolitics.””

Bloomberg Quicktake– “Ukraine: Is Russia Planning to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

iNews– “How Russia’s Fake Claims About Ukraine Bioweapons Spread From Telegram Anti-Vaxxers to Fox News”

  • ““It goes back to the 1980s, when the KGB started a rumour that the United States occurred the HIV virus,” said Dr Greg Koblentz, Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.”

CNN What Matters– “Russia and Chemical Weapons: What You Need to Know”

  • Dr. Koblentz featured heavily in this article through a long interview discussing many facets of Russian CBW, including the difference between BW and CW, Russia’s obligations under international law, the potential for Russia to use such weapons against Ukraine, and more

Open– “No! Quelli in Ucraina Non Sono Laboratori Militari Per La Guerra Biologica” (Italian: “No! The Labs in Ukraine Are Not Biowarfare Labs”)

  • “Associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government , Gregory Koblentz, explains to Open why the Russian narrative of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine could be the first phase of a maneuver aimed at attributing to the A completely invented biological threat was born.”
  • “These laboratories are used to diagnose and conduct research on endemic diseases in Ukraine – explains Koblentz -, they are not designed or intended for use to conduct research on biological weapons. The concern is not whether Russia will take them over and use them to develop biological weapons. Moscow already has three large military microbiology facilities which it uses to conduct research and development on biological weapons. Instead, the concern is that Russia is leaking “evidence” fabricated in those labs and claiming to have uncovered a secret US-Ukraine program to develop biological weapons. Of course, such a statement would be nonsense.”
  • “The only way these laboratories could pose a danger would be if they were bombed, looted or occupied and unsuspecting individuals accidentally became infected with a leftover pathogen sample – continues the expert -, which was on site but no longer properly stored. . The WHO has told Ukraine to destroy the samples of high-risk pathogens in their laboratories for this reason ”.
  • “The United States and Ukraine have been transparent about the type of public health research conducted in these laboratories – concludes Koblentz -, as you can see on the US embassy website . The Defense Department has just released a new fact sheet explaining its assistance to Ukraine in this area. The BTRP strengthens biological health and safety in laboratories around the world and develops the capacity of these laboratories to diagnose and study diseases that pose a threat to public health in those countries. Since the onset of COVID-19, the program has also helped these countries respond to the pandemic by providing diagnostic kits, etc. “

EFE Verifica– “Nada Prueba Que Haya Laboratorios de Armas Biológicas en Ucrania, Como Afirma Rusia” (Spanish: “Nothing Prove That There Are Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine, As Russia Claims”)

  • “For his part, Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Politics and Government, recalls that in 1980 the Soviets spread the rumor that the US had “invented” the HIV virus and was being “used” as a biological weapon.”
  • “Since then, this type of disinformation campaign has been “quite aggressive” and has targeted not only the US, but also Georgia and Ukraine, stresses Koblentz, for whom these accusations are part “of a pattern” in propaganda Russian.”

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