Happy National Arbor Day to all our readers in the United States! To kick off this day highlighting the importance of protecting our environment and trees, we discuss how man-made climate change is increasing the spread of infectious diseases. We also cover COVID-19 as a future endemic disease, discussion of modern WMD threats, and a long list of fantastic new publications, including some by our own faculty members and students as well as friends of the Pandora Report.
Climate Change and Infectious Disease Risks- Is This the Pandemicene?
Newly published research in Nature this week reaffirms that climate change does indeed increase the risk of infectious diseases spreading. The new article by Carson et al. discusses how climate change specifically increases the chances of cross-species viral transmission. The authors explain that “At least 10,000 virus species have the capacity to infect humans, but at present, the vast majority are circulating silently in wild mammals. However, climate and land use change will produce novel opportunities for viral sharing among previously geographically-isolated species of wildlife. In some cases, this will facilitate zoonotic spillover…” Their work uses a phylogeographic model of the mammal-virus network to simulate potential hotspots of future viral sharing while also projecting geographic range shifts for over 3,100 mammal species using climate change and land use scenarios for the year 2070.
Ed Yong recently discussed this in the Atlantic, highlighting how the coming decades are estimated to see about 300,000 first encounters between species that typically do not interact. Though this number comes from some of the most optimistic climate outlooks, he explains, this would still allow for approximately 15,000 spillovers. He notes that Southeast Asia will likely be especially prone to spillovers because of a number of factors, include the wide range of bats living in the region. Africa too will likely encounter several problems, he explains, writing “In Africa, bats are probably the natural reservoirs for Ebola. Thirteen species could potentially carry the virus, and as global warming forces them to disperse, they’ll encounter almost 3,700 new mammal species, leading to almost 100 spillovers.”
Milder winters, less days with frost, increased precipitation, and hotter summers all mean it is easier for infectious diseases to spread globally and infect more people. As the world continues to fail to implement policies to reduce factors contributing to climate change, vectors will continue to spread and human populations will increasingly interact with wildlife populations. As such, it is important to invest in disease surveillance and public health infrastructure globally to meet these threats wherever they crop up. Yong summarizes this need nicely, writing “But pandemics are inherently unpredictable, and no amount of prevention will fully negate their risk. The world must be ready to meet the viruses that slip through the net. That means fortifying public health and health-care systems, strengthening social safety nets, and addressing all the weaknesses of the pre-COVID normal that made the world so vulnerable to the current pandemic and will leave it susceptible to the next. The world, in its desire to move past COVID, is already forgetting the lessons of the recent past, and perhaps assuming that a generation-defining crisis will occur only once a generation.”
COVID-19 Probably Is Not Going Anywhere
Dr. Anthony Fauci stated in an interview this week that the US is “out of the pandemic phase” in its battle with COVID-19, explaining that the virus still poses a threat but that, “We’re really in a transitional phase, from a deceleration of the numbers into hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity.” After all, the Biden administration has made Paxlovid more accessible, second boosters are authorized for older and immunocompromised people, and, according to the CDC, three out of every four children have likely been infected with COVID-19. However, Becker’s writes, “Nationwide, COVID-19 cases increased 59 percent over the past 14 days, according to HHS data collected by The New York Times. Cases of COVID-19 have increased in the last 14 days in 47 states.” Furthermore, as more Americans gain access to at-home rapid antigen tests, it is likely that a large number of people in the US are positive but do not report the test results, especially if they experience mild or no symptoms. While cases are climbing right now, the US is averaging a little over 55,000 new cases per day for the last week, a sharp difference from the over 802,000 per day average experienced in January this year. So, if more people are experiencing milder infections, the people who are going to get vaccinated have done so, and antivirals are more readily available, when will this thing go away?
Well, it probably will not go away completely. Early in the pandemic, optimistic discussion of the possibility of eradicating COVID-19 abounded. However, as time has dragged on, that possibility dwindled. Only one human disease has been eradicated- smallpox. Smallpox was one of history’s most formidable killers, but there was not an animal reservoir for it, so it only infected humans. While this fact did not make eradication easy, it made it possible to use ring vaccination campaigns to eventually suffocate the virus as there was no risk it was lurking in the wild. Dr. Fauci discussed earlier this year how COVID-19 will likely become endemic once a less severe variant becomes established and helps COVID-19 become more like all of the other infectious diseases we routinely deal with, stating “But hopefully it will be at such a low level that it doesn’t disrupt our normal social, economic and other interactions.” The possibility of new, deadlier variants emerging remains important to consider while access to vaccines and therapeutics remains inequitable globally, with the developing world still largely lacking consistent access to these resources.
This discussion also has some increasingly considering whether or not the Russian flu of the 19th century was actually a coronavirus pandemic too. The “Russian flu” was originally thought to have lasted from 1889 to 1890, killing an estimated 1 million globally and coming at a time when modern germ theory was challenging miasma theory. A recent Fortune article discusses how this was the first well-documented pandemic and how it potentially stuck around after its pandemic phase ended, likely lasting anywhere from 1894 to 1900. Interestingly, long-term complications were also experienced with the Russian flu, similar to what is observed with long COVID. The article explains some of the symptoms observed with this supposed flu: “…Brüssow refers to a 344-page doctors’ report from 1891 London, which describes Russian flu patients as suffering from a “hard, dry cough,” fevers of 100 to 105 degrees, “frontal headache of special severity,” “pains in the eyeballs,” “general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits,” and “weeping, nervous restlessness, inability to sleep, and occasional delirium.”” It also explains how children were relatively spared from it and how nearly 10% of cases had long-term symptoms, further leading to speculation this was a coronavirus pandemic. Some hypothesize this “flu” lives on today as OC43, a human coronavirus that generally causes mild upper respiratory illness, which would again point to a coronavirus pandemic that became much more mild and endemic. However, OC43 does occasionally bring increased mortality rates, with a 2021 study finding a 9.1% mortality rate in 77 patients at a Korean hospital between 2012 and 2017.
All this to say…COVID-19 probably is not going anywhere, though it might be less disruptive now. It is still important to take precautions and not fall into a sense of apathy, however, especially as factors like man made climate change mean most of us will likely experience an extreme pandemic in our lifetimes. If this all has you down, check out PBS Eons’ video about the pandemic that lasted 15 million years when ERV-Fc kept jumping around during the Oligocene and early Miocene epochs.
Is This the Cold War 2.0? Assessing Modern WMD Threats
Amid the surge in discussion and concern about potential use of WMD amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, DOD’s counter-WMD leaders warned the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month that this is a potential “wake-up call” for the US. A new piece in Air Force Magazine discusses this, quoting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, John Plumb, stating “I think the crisis in Ukraine and the blatant threats, really, by Russia of the potential use of chemical and biological weapons is opening everyone’s eyes to how much of a problem this is.” The piece further explains how the US has focused in the last decades on concerns that non-state actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda or “rogue states” like North Korea or Iran would use these weapons. However, this has been challenged by use of CW in Syria and in assassination attempts against Navalny and the Skripals. It continues with, “In order to be prepared should deterrence fail, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has directed that DOD integrate counter-WMD operations into “planning, resourcing, modernizing, and then more importantly, training and exercising, holistically,” said Vice Adm. Collin Patrick Green, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.” The reality is that, in addition to concerns about other WMD categories, advances in modern science and the current security environment are making the BW threat evolve, so this discussion is critical.
However, recognizing a threat is one thing. Adapting policies to combat it is an entire other beast. Enter Al Mauroni’s recent publication, “On Biological War” (move over Clausewitz?). Mauroni, Director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies at Air University, discusses the modern BW threat in the era of renewed great power competition, warning of the dangers of shifting to a “threat-agnostic” approach to DOD’s Chemical-Biological Defense Program. He argues that, “Prior to attempting the implementation of yet another strategy to counter biological threats, the Army needs to establish the context of how adversaries would deliberately use biological threats against U.S. national security interests.” He also stresses that such a strategy, once the threat is properly appreciated, has to be adequately resourced and implemented to address deliberate biological releases while “understanding that natural infectious diseases pose a competing priority.”
He continues by arguing that COVID-19 actually does not tell us much about how prepared the US is for a BW attack as SARS-CoV-2 has not behaved like a biological weapon. This is contrary to much of what has been argued over the course of the pandemic, offering a fresh perspective on this issue. He also discusses different approaches to developing this preparedness, focusing on one option where chemical and biological defense are a combined operational concept and another where the medical community is responsible for responding to both BW attacks and naturally occurring outbreaks. He also covers the challenges of a centralized biodefense enterprise before strongly cautioning against trying to make the Army focus on both man-made and naturally occurring outbreaks, writing “The only way to succeed in moving forward in a future biological defense posture is not, then, to dilute the Army’s efforts by trying to manage the development of defensive capabilities for all natural disease outbreaks and deliberate biological attacks under a single general construct.”
Student Feature: Emily Johnson, Biodefense MS Student, Attends ABSA Conference
Emily Johnson, a student in the Biodefense Graduate Program, attended the American Biological Safety Association’s 64th Annual Biosafety and Biosecurity Conference in October 2021. Her write up of the event is now available on the Pandora Report. She covers a number of sessions from the conference, including “Virology in the Time of a Pandemic”, “The COVID Pandemic: The Evolving Reality”, “Gene Therapy”, and “Professional Development: Identifying and Overseeing Potential DURC: A practical Guide for the Biosafety Professional”.
Combating Terrorism Center: Biological Threat Special Issue-Part One
West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center’s new issue of CTC Sentinel is packed full of work covering everything from potential bioterror exploitation of tunable viral agents to a piece on global biorisk management authored by Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London, Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and Biodefense PhD Student and CSIS Research Associate, Joseph Rodgers. Lentzos et al. discuss the need not only to address contemporary risks while creating an international biorisk framework, but to also develop “an authoritative international institution with a mandate to systematically register and track maximum containment facilities and to oversee extremely high-risk research.”
“Closing the Gap: Establishing a New UN Mechanism for Discerning the Source of Pandemics of Unknown Origins”
A team of Nuclear Threat Initiative researchers, including Former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane and Dr. Jaime Yassif, recently published this commentary piece with the European Leadership Network. In it they discuss the disruptions to regional and global security caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing concerns about use of unconventional weapons. They write, “Not least of these concerns is the dangerous disinformation campaign by Russia alleging bioweapons development in Ukraine, which has led to concerns that Russia may itself use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine as part of a false flag operation. These allegations have highlighted the salience and importance of efforts to guard against biological risks, and they have drawn attention to gaps in the global biosecurity and pandemic preparedness architecture.” They offer the idea of a Joint Assessment Mechanism that would make use of things like bioinformatics, data science, and AI to be the “eyes of the international community” in monitoring these threats.
“Biosecurity in an Age of Open Science”
Smith and Sandbrink’s new article in PLOS Biology discusses the risk of accidental or deliberate misuse of biological research and its increasing risk amid modern biotechnological advancements. They write:
The risk of accidental or deliberate misuse of biological research is increasing as biotechnology advances. As open science becomes widespread, we must consider its impact on those risks and develop solutions that ensure security while facilitating scientific progress. Here, we examine the interaction between open science practices and biosecurity and biosafety to identify risks and opportunities for risk mitigation. Increasing the availability of computational tools, datasets, and protocols could increase risks from research with misuse potential. For instance, in the context of viral engineering, open code, data, and materials may increase the risk of release of enhanced pathogens. For this dangerous subset of research, both open science and biosecurity goals may be achieved by using access-controlled repositories or application programming interfaces. While preprints accelerate dissemination of findings, their increased use could challenge strategies for risk mitigation at the publication stage. This highlights the importance of oversight earlier in the research lifecycle. Preregistration of research, a practice promoted by the open science community, provides an opportunity for achieving biosecurity risk assessment at the conception of research. Open science and biosecurity experts have an important role to play in enabling responsible research with maximal societal benefit.
“Meeting the Challenges of Chemical and Biological Weapons: Strengthening the Chemical and Biological Disarmament and Non-proliferation Regimes”
In this new report in Frontiers in Political Science, Edwards et al. offer an overview of current technical and political challenges in the CBW regime ahead of the upcoming Review Conferences for the Biological Weapons Convention (2022) and Chemical Weapons Convention (expected in 2023). They seek to provide, “…an introduction to this issue area for the general reader before surveying key issues and developing a series of practical policy suggestions for further consideration.” In doing so, they cover everything from the basics of CBW to the impacts of modern scientific advancement on proliferations of the weapons and the way different types of conflict have shaped these weapons. This very thorough report is an excellent backgrounder for anyone looking to get up to speed ahead of RevCon later this year! The report is also a key output of their ongoing project, “Informing Policymakers of the Progress in Strengthening the Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-Proliferation Regime”.
“China’s Biomedical Data Hacking Threat: Applying Big Data Isn’t as Easy as It Seems”
Drs. Kathleen M. Vogel and Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently published this piece in the Texas National Security Review. In it they explain that, “Concerns have developed in recent years about the acquisition of U.S. biomedical information by Chinese individuals and the Chinese government and how this creates security and economic threats to the United States. And yet, China’s illicit acquisition of data is only one aspect of what is required to produce an enhanced science and technology capability that would pose a security threat.” They discuss how current assessments fail to “account for the heterogeneity of big data and the challenges that any actor (state or nonstate) faces in making sense of this data and using it.” They seek to provide new socio-technical frameworks that can help better understand Chinese threats involving biomedical big data to help improve things like law enforcement and policies focusing on Chinese acquisition of this data.
“China Focuses on Ethics to Deter Another ‘CRISPRbabies’ Scandal”
Nature News Senior Reporter Smriti Mallapaty recently published this piece discussing the PRC State Council’s recent statement calling on research institutions in China to expand and improve ethics training. This directive and several others are designed to address gaps exposed by He Jiankui’s research that created the first babies with edited genomes in 2018. She writes, “The document places primary responsibility for ethics governance on institutions, but also calls for the establishment of a science and technology ethics association, which could have a role. “This is really refreshing,” says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. Academic associations in China have conventionally played a limited role in regulatory discussions, but they could help enforce ethical norms, she says.” However, she later explains that “…some researchers worry that the statement might deter those wanting to engage in scientifically valuable research topics that can be responsibly conducted but that could raise ethical questions, says Nie. “They will say ‘I will not bother because I do not want to get in trouble’.” This complicated topic and its potential security challenges were highlighted by Biodefense Graduate Program faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley in her award winning paper, “From CRISPR Babies to Super Soldiers: Challenges and Security Threats Posed by CRISPR”.
“Evidence-Based Laboratory Biorisk Management Science and Technology Roadmap”
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) recently released this roadmap from the National Science and Technology Council’s Health Security Threats Subcommittee on Laboratory Biosafety and Biosecurity. It discusses the current challenges in this area before offering recommendations, including the need for government-wide coordination, biorisk management data-sharing, and a globally distributed research agenda. It also identifies applied biorisk research priorities, including sociology of laboratory biorisk management and evaluation of risk assessment and management methods.
“Countering the Future Chemical Weapons Threat”
Dr. Tuan Nguyen of Lawrence Livermore National Lab recently published this policy forum piece in Science discussing challenges facing the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in today’s security environment. The OPCW was created as the implementing body for the CWC, which is set for review next year. The CWC is the first multilateral disarmament treaty that provides universal standards for the elimination of an entire WMD category. To date, the OPCW has conducted over 4,200 industry inspections and overseen the destruction of 71,614 metric tons of the world’s declared CW stockpiles. He discusses how the OPCW will eventually need to shift more towards focusing on nonproliferation than disarmament, writing “As the next CWC review conference approaches in 2023, a next-generation OPCW 2.0 can be effective and credible only if it reinforces international norms against CW, anticipates future challenges posed by advancements in science and technology (S&T), incorporates more qualitative elements into the verification and compliance system, and keeps pace with technological change.”
“War Amid a Pandemic: The Public Health Consequences of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”
The Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently published this piece addressing a number of questions about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has impacted healthcare and public health in the war-torn country. It covers everything from low vaccination rates to the health security challenge of the influx of Ukrainian refugees into Europe, concluding “As the course of the war and true costs of reconstruction become clearer, there must be a dose of caution: after two years of intensive global spending on the Covid-19 response, public health and foreign assistance budgets are strained, if not exhausted. Even with more creative sources of funds and the extraordinary response to the Ukrainian cause to date, spending fatigue will be a looming concern, particularly as the cost of reconstruction efforts is expected to number in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Concerted effort will be required to sustain global solidarity and meet the ambition required for durable public health recovery in Ukraine.”
“The Perils of Machine Learning in Designing New Chemicals and Materials”
Shankar and Zare recently published this correspondence piece in Nature Machine Intelligence. In it they discuss how machine learning will revolutionize practice in chemistry and materials science. They write, “Already, machine learning is being used to find new pharmaceutical compounds, including in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This holds great promise for the future, but also great peril. Right now, too little attention is being paid to the downside, as pointed out in a recent Comment by Urbina et al.” They explain how less than 1% of the chemicals registered for commercial use in the US have undergone toxicity characterization and how material and chemical use increased to 60 billion tons annually over the last century. They conclude that, “There is an intrinsic conflict between making work public, to encourage adoption and improvement of new codes and databases, and protecting it from abuse and misuse,” ultimately calling for a conference of experts to create a plan to balance safe deployment and wide utility of these capabilities. Scientific American also recently published a piece featuring Drs. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London and Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley of George Mason University’s Biodefense Graduate Program discussing the risk of AI drug discovery systems being repurposed to make chemical weapons.
Biological Risks and Hazards In the World Today With Special Focus On Russia and Ukraine
Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy is offering this event featuring Dr. Gregory Koblentz. The event will take place on May 4, 2022, from 12:00-1:30pm ET. This will be held as a Zoom webinar, and is open to the public. Information and registration for the event can be found here: tinyurl.com/iserpbiorisks .
Biological and Chemical Weapons Security and the War in Ukraine
On May 5 at 4 pm CT, join experts Asha George and Robert Pope in conversation with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor Matt Field to discuss security risks in Ukraine. The discussion will cover the role of US-supported biological labs in Ukraine, what Russia’s alleged use of poisons and chemical weapons in the past says about its intentions for use in the future, and how disinformation about the use of biological weapons in Ukraine weakens global security. Speakers include Dr. Asha George (Executive Director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense) and Dr. Robert Pope (Director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Directorate of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency). Register 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. 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:
“Biological Weapons Are Banned: Biological Research Is Not”
EUvsDisinfo released this interview with Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders, founder of The Trench, this week discussing some of the basics of history and international law surrounding biological weapons and the implications of Russia’s claims.
Programme Biologique Militaire en Ukraine, Histoire d’Une Désinformation Russe/ Military Biological Program in Ukraine, History of Russian Disinformation
This French language resource from the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique (Foundation for Strategic Research) discusses Russia’s historical CBW disinformation efforts and offers updates and analysis of recent developments, including Russia’s statements at the UN Security Council last month.