Pandora Report: 4.8.2022

This week we discuss the BWC at 50, the CDC’s upcoming review, the Metaverse’s continued failure to flag Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories, and Shanghai in lockdown. We also cover a number of great new publications and exciting upcoming events. Finally, we want to congratulate Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley for recently winning the Runner-Up McElvany Award from the James Martin Center and the Nonproliferation Review!

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley Wins Runner-Up McElvany Award from James Martin Center and Nonproliferation Review

Biodefense faculty member, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, was recently selected as the Runner-up Prize winner for the Doreen and Jim McElvany Award from the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nonproliferation Review. Her paper, “From CRISPR Babies to Super Soldiers: Challenges and Security Threats Posed by CRISPR” reviews Dr. He Jiankui’s experiments and evaluates the risks of such uses of CRISPR for malevolent purposes. She focuses on the technical obstacles to this kind of abuse, offering fresh perspectives on this security challenge. Her work was praised by the judges for “…its thoroughness and for the sophistication of her analysis of the sociotechnical factors that made Dr. He’s experiments unsuccessful, building on prior research on synthetic biology and biological-weapons proliferation. One called it “an antidote” to worst-case thinking about the risks of misuse that the CRISPR gene-editing tool may pose.” A big congratulations to Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and the other winners!

The Biological Weapons Convention Turns 50

The Preparatory Committee’s (PrepCom) second session for the BWC’s upcoming Ninth Review Conference is currently ongoing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. This is in preparation for the Review Convention (RevCon) set to take place in August of this year. Much of the commentary surrounding PrepCom has focused on the critical need to improve the BWC and enforcement of it, particularly in light of the ongoing devastation caused by the pandemic and the nonproliferation and biosecurity threats posed by advancements in the biological sciences.

US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, released a statement discussing the BWC’s history, its clear importance, and the need to strengthen it today. Among other things, his statement highlighted that “The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the devastating impact that disease can have on the world. We must recognize that other biological risks are growing and take action to address them. We face not only an increased threat of naturally occurring diseases, but also the potential for laboratory accidents and the intentional misuse of life sciences and biotechnology. The weaponization of biological agents and toxins violates the BTWC and is unacceptable, and the use of biological weapons – in the words of the Convention – “would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” He called on this year’s RevCon to take “near-term, concrete action to strengthen the Convention and benefit States Parties in such areas as increasing resource for international assistance and cooperation and establishing a mechanism to review advances in science and technology.”

You can find the reports from this PrepCom here. A recording of UNIDIR’s event, Lessons Learned for the biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference, is also available here.

Facebook Fails to Appropriately Label 80% of Bioweapon Conspiracy Articles On Its Platform

It’s no secret that Facebook remains a fertile land for conspiracy theorists and fringe groups, despite the launch of platforms like Parler and Truth Social. In recent years, Facebook and other platforms have begun labeling misleading and false posts with warnings, with varying levels of success. For example, during the early 2021 US Senate election in Georgia (a state where the 2020 presidential election was decided by just 12,000 votes), Facebook failed to apply fact check labels to 60% of top-performing posts using false election information. This has been a recurring theme regarding health information throughout the pandemic as well. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no different either. According to a study released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate Similarly, Facebook failed to label 80% of articles on its service that promote conspiracy theories about US labs in Ukraine and Ukraine’s supposed intent to use CBW against Russia. The Center also found Facebook fails to label 91% of posts containing Russian propaganda about Ukraine posted between February 24 and March 14 this year. The Center is renewing its calls for Meta to better enforce its use of “false information”, “partly false information”, and “missing context” labels in light of its findings.

Shanghai in Lockdown

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to cling to its “zero-COVID” strategy, this time shutting down the entire city of Shanghai amid the city’s worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began. Shanghai, a major global trade and finance hub, is home to 25 million people, making it the most populated city proper in the world and the only city in East Asia with a GDP higher than that of its country’s capital. The city officially recorded over 130,000 cases since March 1 as of yesterday, April 7, according to CNN. While lockdowns (along with censorship and lies) have been key features of the CCP’s COVID-19 response, Shanghai has seen the breakdown of food delivery services, which have proven essential for those stuck in lock down cities. Meituan, one such delivery service, sent nearly 1,000 extra workers to Shanghai to help with this issue this week amid rising complaints of hunger and lack of access to other necessities. Other measures include implementation of next-day group deliveries, community bulk buying, and use of autonomous delivery vehicles to help alleviate some of the problems.

Furthermore, there is concern about an “immunity gap” in the PRC, meaning the population has little to no protection gained through infection and very low protection acquired from Chinese vaccines due to their poor quality. China, like many countries, also still struggles with providing antivirals to people who do contract the disease, further complicating the matter. All of this has led some to question whether this will seriously damage the CCP moving forward, particularly as frustrations in Shanghai rise, with more citizens becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns. This all comes, too, after many a debate about whether or not the authoritarian government system in the PRC would prove “better” at pandemic management, further demonstrating the complications of understanding the relationship between governance and outbreak management.

CDC to Undergo Month-Long Evaluation Following Relentless Criticism

CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, announced this week that her agency will undergo a month-log, sweeping review in response to the near constant criticism it has received in the last couple of years. According to CNN Health, “Starting April 11, Jim Macrae, an administrator with the US Department of Health and Human Services, will join the CDC for a month-long listening tour and assessment. Walensky said he will provide her with insight on how the delivery of the agency’s science and programs can be further strengthened as it transitions more of its Covid-19 response activities to its various centers, institutes and offices. Walensky also asked three senior leaders to gather feedback on the agency, including its current structure and suggestions for change.” CDC says it has worked over the last year to develop systems to speed up data reporting and scientific processes during pandemic response, though it says it now needs to institutionalize and formalize these approaches.

Walensky also said in her statement, “Never in its 75 years history has CDC had to make decisions so quickly, based on often limited, real-time, and evolving science. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented opportunities across HHS to review current organizational structures, systems, and processes, and CDC is working to strategically position and modernize the agency to facilitate and support the future of public health. As we’ve challenged our state and local partners, we know that now is the time for CDC to integrate the lessons learned into a strategy for the future.” The CDC has been criticized for being slow to recommend universal masking early in the pandemic, as well as its subsequent rapid changes on masking and booster policies, in addition to its recent halving of the isolation time for infected people.

Health Security Intelligence- An Operations Perspective

A new article was recently published in Intelligence and National Security focusing on the bridge between health security warning intelligence and hospital preparedness and response, titled “Health Security Warning Intelligence During First Contact With COVID: An Operations Perspective”. In it, Wilson et al. use Nevada’s experience with COVID-19 as a case study to show that “access to health security warning intelligence enabled avoidance of overwhelming patient demand and compromise of emergency response.”

New Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report

A new IPCC report released this week, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, offers a more optimistic perspective on the potential to seriously limit global warming to 1.5°C, citing factors like the “sustained decreases of up to 85% in the costs of solar and wind energy, and batteries” in the last decade. “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee.  “I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective.  If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”

New AMR Strategic Plan from WHO and Others

The WHO, UN Environment Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and World Organisation for Animal Health recently released their new strategic plan for combatting AMR, “Together for One Health: Strategic Framework for Collaboration on Antimicrobial Resistance”. Among other things, the framework discusses the benefits of this specific collaboration and identified key goals and implementation strategies, including building countries’ capacities to ensure policy coherence across sectors.

IMF’s Global Strategy for Long-Term COVID-19 Risks

The International Monetary Fund recently released its latest strategy for COVID-19, “A Global Strategy to Manage the Long-Term Risks of COVID-19”, which assesses outcomes for scenarios ranging from a mild endemic disease to future dangerous variants emerging. Its strategy implications focus on broad healthcare equity, disease surveillance and monitoring, transition from an acute response to a sustainable, long-term one, and a unified risk-mitigation approach to future disease threats.

Biological and Chemical Warfare in Ancient Myth and History

Dr. Adrienne Mayor is delivering Loyola University Chicago’s Callahan Lecture this discussing her work, including her book, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Unconventional Warfare in the Ancient World. The lecture will be available on Zoom on April 11, 2022 at 5 pm CST. Register here.

ASPR TRACIE Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare System Considerations

Join presenters from the federal and private sectors as they discuss ASPR TRACIE’s newly released Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare System Considerations document and accompanying Topic Collection; current and future HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) and Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) efforts and priorities as they pertain to climate change; and the critical role of health systems in advancing environmental stewardship to achieve health equity. The webinar will take place from 2:30-3:30 PM (ET) on Monday, April 18, 2022Register today.

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. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

Lessons From the First Time Russia Accused the United States of Biowarfare

Dr. Conrad Crane of the US Army War College authored this piece in War on the Rocks discussing the Soviet Union’s false claims that the US used BW against North Korea and China during the Korean War.

Will Russia Use Chemical Weapons in Ukraine? Researchers Evaluate the Risks

Davide Castelvecchi reports in this Nature News Explainer, discussing Western government’s worries about Russian CW, probable Russian thinking on the use of CW in the conflict, and prevention and detection measures.

Unmasking “Clandestine,” the Figure Behind the Viral “Ukrainian Biolab” Conspiracy Theory

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism recently released this article discussing the identity and background of “Clandestine”, a Virginia man and ARNG veteran who helped spur the biolab conspiracy theory in the US.

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