Pandora Report: 4.1.2022

This week we discuss ongoing Russian attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and global response to the threat of WMD use in Ukraine. We also cover the Biden administration’s budget requests for science in the coming fiscal year, the WHO’s new strategy for genomic surveillance, and the United States’ new special representative to the BWC. We round out with a myriad of new publications, including one on hypoallergenic CRISPR kitties, and updates to our collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation.

Sign of the Times? Gruinard Island Is On Fire

Continuing with this decade’s general trend, an uninhabited Scottish island once used for germ warfare experiments in the early half of the 20th century caught fire this week. The island, 1 km off the mainland’s shore at its closest point, has long since been uninhabited. However, rumors of its secrets spread to the mainland over the decades as sheep, cows, and horses mysteriously died following anthrax tests on livestock during WWII, as revealed by a declassified film from the British Ministry of Defence. It even took the Ministry 24 years after the tests to mention the anthrax risk on the island’s warning signs, according to the BBC. The Ministry finally declared the island anthrax-free in 1990, further indicating these is little risk in this situation, but the internet was quick to point out how characteristic of the 2020s headlines about the “Anthrax Island” catching fire are. Check out the BBC’s documentary on the Dark Harvest Commando’s trip to the island in 1981 here.

Russia Continues Attacks On Ukrainian Healthcare Facilities

According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 70 attacks targeting hospitals, ambulances, and providers in Ukraine. That number, the organization states, continues to increase on a daily basis. As of this morning, the Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care put this number at 82 since the start of February, with most of the recent attacks being classified as either violence with heavy weapons or removal of healthcare assets. A number of videos of attacks on Ukrainian facilities continue to circulate online, including footage corroborated by the BBC and other outlets of the shelling of the newly refurbished hospital in Izyum on March 8. At the time, the hospital was treating “children, pregnant women and three newborn babies as well as soldiers and civilians injured in fierce fighting in the region, according to the Ukrainian authorities.” While many of these attacks have focused on damaging hospitals, transports, and supplies, the WHO has recorded the “”probable” abduction or detention of healthcare staff and patients.” Civilian hospitals are protected under Article 18 of the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Exceptions to this come only under circumstances such as when civilian healthcare facilities are being used to shield healthy combatants or if they are placed near legitimate military targets. Violations of this rule can be investigated by the International Criminal Court, allowing individual perpetrators to be prosecuted and punished if found guilty of war crimes.

WMD and CBRN Concerns in the War Persist

Science also reported this week that, although the power was restored on 14 March to the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, according to Anatolii Nosovskyi (Director of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv), looters made off radioactive isotopes used to calibrate instruments and pieces of radioactive waste. Concerns over these stem from the fact these materials could be used to help create a dirty bomb when mixed with conventional explosives. Chornobyl is not the only nuclear facility at risk, as facilities like Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology have also been attacked, in what Nosovskyi describes as “state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi called the Zaporizhzhya shelling a “close call” as the projectiles, thankfully, missed the facility’s reactor halls. The Science article explains the unique concerns about Chornobyl, writing, “But Chornobyl has a unique set of radioactive hazards. On 11 March, wildfires ignited in the nearby radioactive forests, which harbor radioisotopes that were disgorged in the accident and taken up by plants and fungi. Russian military activities have prevented firefighters from entering the exclusion zone, Nosovskyi says.” This comes amid continued international concerns the Russians could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.

This prompted the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction to release a statement this week decrying Russia’s invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine and the subsequent concerns of WMD use, writing “We are outraged that the threat of use of weapons of mass destruction has been evoked in the course of this conflict and that military action is creating serious CBRN risks for the population and the environment, with the potential for catastrophic results.” The statement continues, “Ukraine is a long-standing, constructive and committed member of the Global Partnership with an exemplary non-proliferation record, as demonstrated by its renouncing of nuclear weapons inherited from the former Soviet Union in 1994. For more than two decades, Global Partnership members have worked together with Ukraine to increase the safety and security of facilities dealing with sensitive nuclear, biological or chemical materials for exclusively peaceful purposes and to support and enhance protective capabilities against the abuse of such materials.” This has also prompted renewed discussion of nuclear responsibility, including this piece by Ariel Levite (former Principal Deputy Director General for Policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission) and Toby Dalton from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discussing the risks of a nuclear power accident and Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Biden White House Aims High in Science Budget Requests (Again)

President Biden submitted to Congress a 2023 budget request that calls for a 9.5% increase in domestic discretionary spending. Science reports “Biden is asking for a 19% increase at the National Science Foundation (NSF), a 9.6% boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 4.5% more for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and a 5% hike for NASA’s science missions. Once again, fighting climate change and boosting sustainable energy technologies also rank high among Biden’s research priorities.” However, last year, even with the Democrats in control, Biden’s first budget requests for science funding were seriously downsized in Congress’s final 2022 spending bill. Science explains, “For example, legislators shrank Biden’s proposed budget for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) from $6.5 billion to $1 billion, instead giving NIH’s existing institutes a boost of 5%. But ARPA-H remains a presidential favorite, with Biden requesting a total of $5 billion for it in 2023.” In an effort to garner bipartisan support, Biden requested to increase defense spending by 4% this year and has focused this request on addressing the federal deficit by reducing overall spending (though he still proposed to raise taxes on the super wealthy). The US budget deficit hit a record $1.7 trillion in the first half of the fiscal year, amid huge spending for pandemic relief including the $1.9 trillion economic rescue package passed last March. The budget request does push for increased funding for agencies like HHS and local public health funding, but some, including Secretary of HHS Xavier Becerra, seem worried this will not be enough to “finish the job” on COVID-19.

Kenneth D. Ward Named US Special Representative to the Biological Weapons Convention

The US Department of State and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie D. Jenkins announced this week that Kenneth Ward is the Biden administration’s new pick to represent the US at the BWC. Ward boasts a 30-year career in arms control and nonproliferation with the US Department of State and the former US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, having previously served as the US Ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, with previous assignments as the Director of the Office of Chemical and Biological Weapons Affairs in State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, and the Deputy Negotiator during the 2004-2007 WMD elimination effort in Libya. This is a critical time for the BWC, especially with its ninth review conference set to be held later this year, so strong US representation is a must.

WHO- One in Three Countries Do Not Have Genomic Surveillance Capacity

The WHO released its new 10-year strategy to improve genomic surveillance of pathogens globally. While few countries historically have been able to do genomic surveillance routinely in-country (largely because of how complicated and expensive the process is), COVID-19 has helped change this. WHO explains “Data collected by WHO show that in March 2021, 54% of countries had this capacity. By January 2022, thanks to the major investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number had increased to 68%. Even greater gains were made in the public sharing of sequence data: in January 2022, 43% more countries published their sequence data compared to a year before.” Importantly, the new “Global Genomic Surveillance Strategy for Pathogens with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential 2022-2032″ is not pathogen- or disease threat-specific. Rather, it aims to provide a high-level framework to “…leverage existing capacities, address barriers and strengthen the use of genomic surveillance worldwide.” It tries specifically to address the potential for the gaps and increased inequity the greater use of this technology might lead to as well, particularly in assessing workforce training and needs. Genomic surveillance proved critical in this pandemic in identifying the novel coronavirus and creating diagnostic tests and vaccines for it, so it is critical to continue investing in this technology and global capacity.

Is It Time For a National Biorisk Management Agency?

A new article in Health Security by Ritterson et al. discusses the merits of creating a new, centralized federal entity that would act as mission control for biorisk oversight in the United States. They explain the current patchwork system of biorisk management in the US federal government that is highly dependent on the pathogens researchers are using, where their funding comes from, and the location of the lab in question. As an example of this, they point to the fact that the CDC and USDA are able to regulate labs that possess agents on the select agent lists, but they have very little control over labs that are researching other transmissible agents. While they applaud the Biden administration for recognizing these risks, they write that the current plan of action doesn’t address major gaps, writing “Currently, the US government does not know the location of laboratories working with pathogens, what pathogens are being studied within these laboratories, or the conditions under which these laboratories are operating—something the US Government Accountability Office itself has repeatedly recognized as a serious issue.” Furthermore, they explain the challenges of oversight in privately funded institutions, who can technically do research on pathogens like H2N2 influenza, including trying to make it more transmissible, with no federal, state, or local entity having much power to do anything about it. While there is robust debate on the merits of such research, the authors of this piece conclude that a new federal entity with better oversight and enforcement mechanisms is needed to help address the conflicts of interest situations like this can create, as well as broader biorisk management issues in the US.

Addressing Inaccurate Information on Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration

The National Academies Press has released this new report, Addressing Inaccurate and Misleading Information About Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration and Communication in Southeast Asia, which discusses how scientists can work collaboratively across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify and address inaccuracies that could fuel mis- and disinformation. The authors explain that, “Some false claims may be addressed through sound scientific analysis, suggesting that scientists can help counter misinformation by providing evidence-based, scientifically defensible information that may discredit or refute these claims,” and continue by writing, ” Although the study focused on a scientific network primarily in Southeast Asia, it is relevant to scientists in other parts of the world.” Biodefense faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley contributed to this report.

The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters

Juliette Kayyem, former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Intergovernmental Affairs, recently released this book discussing the realities of living in a time “…of constant, consistent catastrophe, where things more often go wrong than they go right.” In The Devil Never Sleeps, Juliette Kayyem lays the groundwork for a new approach to dealing with disasters. Presenting the basic themes of crisis management, Kayyem amends the principles we rely on far too easily. Instead, she offers us a new framework to anticipate the “devil’s” inevitable return, highlighting the leadership deficiencies we need to overcome and the forward thinking we need to harness. It’s no longer about preventing a disaster from occurring, but learning how to use the tools at our disposal to minimize the consequences when it does. Kayyem also recently discussed disaster management with Jen Patja Howell on the Lawfare Podcast.

“Here CRISPR Kitty?”

In great news for all of us who just can’t seem to help petting cats even though we know we will suffer shortly afterward- Researchers at InBio, formerly known as Indoor Biotechnologies, reported in a new article published in The CRISPR Journal that they have made progress in treating people with cat allergies, though there is still the goal of creating a hypoallergenic cat. The journal explains, “About 15 percent of the population suffer allergies to domestic cats, which researchers have previously shown is largely attributable to what the Atlantic called “a pernicious little protein” — an allergen called Fel d 1 that is shed by all cats. In the new study, Nicole Brackett and colleagues at InBio performed a bioinformatics analysis of the Fel d 1 gene from 50 domestic cats to pinpoint conserved coding regions suitable for CRISPR editing. Further comparisons to genes in eight exotic felid species revealed a high degree of variation, suggesting that Fel d 1 is nonessential for cats. The researchers used CRISPR-Cas9 to disrupt Fel d 1 with high efficiency.” The authors claim Fel d 1, based on their data, is a viable candidate for gene deletion to help cat allergy sufferers by removing the relevant major allergen at the source. The journal also writes, “The study paves the way for further experiments exploring the use of CRISPR as a potential genetic therapy to muzzle the release of cat allergens.”

Categorizing Sequences of Concern by Function To Better Assess Mechanisms of Microbial Pathogenesis

Godbold et al.’s new minireview in Infection and Immunity tackles the question of how best to regularize descriptions of microbial pathogenesis. In other words, how should we describe what makes “bag bugs” bad? This review assesses adequacy of annotations of sequences with a role in microbial pathogenesis using existing controlled vocabularies and sequence databases. According to the article, “We relate the categorization of more than 2,750 sequences of pathogenic microbes through a controlled vocabulary called Functions of Sequences of Concern (FunSoCs). These allow for an ease of description by both humans and machines. We provide a subset of 220 fully annotated sequences in the supplemental material as examples. The use of this compact (∼30 terms), controlled vocabulary has potential benefits for research in microbial genomics, public health, biosecurity, biosurveillance, and the characterization of new and emerging pathogens.”

Fifth Annual Global Health 50/50 Report Released

Global Health 50/50 has just released their fifth annual report, “Boards for all?”, which presents the organization’s first-ever analysis of the gender and geography of who governs public health. According to Global Health 50/50, the field of global health is not living up to its name. The organization writes, “The report further presents its annual review of the equality- and gender-related policies and practices of 200 global organisations. Building on five years of evidence, it finds signs of rapid progress in building more equitable and gender-responsive global health organisations, while also revealing stagnating progress among a large subset of global health organisations. For the first time, the Index categorises all organisations by performance and presents dedicated pages for each organisation to explore and compare findings.” The report calls for global representation and equitable global health governance.

National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters Meeting

The next public meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters (NACIDD) will take place on Friday, April 1 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET. Registration for this event is required and can be accessed along with additional meeting information through the online event page. Join federal leaders, NACIDD members, distinguished guests, and other experts as we discuss topics on the challenges, opportunities, and priorities related to addressing the needs of people with disabilities.  Hear from Amy Nicholas, Senior Attorney Advisor, for the National Council on Disability, sharing “Lessons Learned on the Efficacy of Federal Programs and Policies for People with Disabilities Before, During, and After Disasters”.  The meeting will also be joined by Sachin Dev Pavithran, Ph.D., Executive Director, with the US Access Board, discussing, “Providing Temporary Aide and Accessible, Transportable Housing During Disaster Events”.

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, with the updates since last week in red:

Russia’s Lies About Bioweapons in Ukraine Make the World Less Safe

Wired released this article late this week discussing the importance of Ukraine’s labs to global public health and how Russian lies about them risk public health in Ukraine, in the region, and around the world.

Ukraine: Is a Chemical or Biological Attack Likely?

Chatham House released this explainer this week discussing the historical context of Russian CBW and disinformation as well as assessing the likelihood of such attacks in the current conflict, which the authors determine are unlikely but still concerning.

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.

Deutschlandfunk– “Hält sich Russland an die Biowaffenkonvention?” (German: “Does Russia Comply With the Biological Weapons Convention?”)

  • Audio recording features segments of an interview with Dr. Koblentz discussing Russia’s past with WMD claims and its interaction with the BWC

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists– “Amid False Russian Allegation of US “Biolabs” in Ukraine, It’s Worth Asking: What Is a Bioweapon?”

  • This article features Dr. Koblentz extensively, discussing in-depth factors like what characteristics would make for the ideal bioweapon, including considerations for blowback and potentially starting another pandemic

El Periodico– “El Ruido Sables Nucleares De Putin” (Spanish: “Putin’s Nuclear Saber Rattling”)

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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