Happy Friday! This week starts with a trip around the Korean Peninsula as we cover what some Biodefense Program students are doing in South Korea right now before discussing updates on COVID-19 in North Korea. Brief updates and sources for more information on monkeypox are also included, in addition to a number of new publications and upcoming events.
Biodefense Students Study Northeast Asian Security Issues in South Korea
Four students from George Mason’s Biodefense Program are studying international security issues in South Korea for two weeks with the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS). The program is headed up by the Schar School’s Professor Ellen Laipson, current Director of CSPS and President Emerita of the Stimson Center, and is sponsored by the UniKorea Foundation. Their time in Korea began at George Mason’s Korea campus, located on the Incheon Global Campus. They are currently in Seoul and will soon finish their trip in Busan. Among other things, they have completed a Korean War crisis simulation and attended the CSPS-Korea branch’s annual symposium, “Prospects for Peace on the Korean Peninsula in Northeast Asia’s Changing Security Landscape,” which has been featured in multiple Korean media outlets.
COVID-19 in North Korea
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK, North Korea) outbreak of “fevers” continues as cases surge towards 3 million and the official death count reaches 86. The country claims it has the situation under control and that it is currently seeing a downward trend in cases, though this is the subject of much skepticism. “In a few days after the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system was activated, the nation-wide morbidity and mortality rates have drastically decreased and the number of recovered persons increased, resulting in effectively curbing and controlling the spread of the pandemic disease and maintaining the clearly stable situation,” Korean Central News Agency said this week.
However, North Korea is apparently unable to maintain sufficient testing capacity, so their numbers actually reflect those confirmed to have a fever, rather than confirmed cases of COVID-19. The term “fevers” seems to have become both a euphemism for COVID-19 and an actual metric for determining who is sick in the absence of strong testing capacity. Furthermore, given the realities of the regime’s rule and party politics in the country, lower-level leaders are not incentivized to tell the truth about outbreaks in localities and provinces. Therefore, while state media is likely not telling the truth about the situation, the central government also likely does not have a great understanding of national case counts either.
Furthermore, while it is doubtful that the country has been truthful in reporting cases over the last couple of years, this does pose an important question- Why did the DPRK announce it has an outbreak now? Kim Jong-un has even described this as the worst crisis since the country’s founding in the mid-20th century. For context, North Korea survived a horrific famine in the 1990s wherein 240,000 to 3.5 million died of starvation or hunger-related illnesses in a country of 22 million. The DPRK is currently struggling with food shortages driven by low crop yields and reduced trade with the PRC due to COVID-19 border restrictions. Kim has also formally acknowledged this crisis, but the admission that this outbreak is so dangerous is especially interesting. National lockdowns have also likely further exacerbated hunger issues in the chronically malnourished country, as North Koreans lose access to private markets where many acquire most of their food, instead of through the national distribution system. There are a myriad of answers swirling around right now about why Kim announced this now, ranging from the idea that he really did not know how bad it was (because, again, lower-level leaders are not likely to be entirely truthful in their reporting) to the potential for this announcement to give the regime more control during this crisis.
However, the rapid spread of fevers throughout the capital has not dampened the DPRK’s missile tests. It launched three ballistic missiles within hours of announcing there was an outbreak in Pyongyang. Furthermore, this week, as President Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan wrapped up, the North launched an ICBM and two other ballistic missiles. Multiple high-explosive tests have been conducted in the North in recent weeks, prompting officials to warn that nuclear and ICBM tests were likely scheduled to occur within the next several weeks. President Biden promised his counterparts that he would work to deter the North’s nuclear threat, which has been a cornerstone of newly-inaugurated South Korean President Yoon’s campaign. Biden and Yoon also publicly discussed resuming military exercises between the two countries, which were paused or scaled-down under the Trump and Moon administrations in an effort to increase engagement with the DPRK. While all of this is something the North would unsurprisingly conduct tests in response to, some did express doubt that this would happen with the formal announcement that there is a major COVID-19 outbreak in the capital. This week, the UN Security Council rejected a US-led resolution to sanction the DPRK in response to these launches, due to Russian and Chinese vetoes. The Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, gave a speech during the vote in which he argued that sanctioning the North would be inhumane given the current situation, even though countries like South Korea and the US have offered aid to the DPRK even while remaining firm on issues like the North’s nuclear program.
The North has also continued to reject other international COVID-19 aid, further signaling that this outbreak has not changed much in the DPRK’s foreign policy so far. There are no known COVID-19 vaccines or antivirals in the country either. With concerns about access to things like oxygen and other medical supplies in the country, this fact is especially concerning. State TV has advised citizens to do things like make salt gargles, drink herbal teas, take pain killers, and disinfect their homes with mugwort solutions, further indicating the regime is presently relying on these at-home “cures” even though it has been offered aid by several countries and the WHO. Kim Jong-un has personally toured several pharmacies, sporting two masks while doing so in a departure from the last two years. It has also been reported that North Koreans near the Chinese border have been observed not wearing masks, meaning masking may only be in effect in Pyongyang or there is a mask shortage. This all does not bode well as the country’s healthcare system has remained hardly functional since the 1990s and more than 42% of the population are considered malnourished.
Monkeypox Cases On the Rise
Monkeypox updates are coming in constantly so, in an effort to not provide outdated or incomplete information, this section will focus more on providing good options for more information. As of May 25, there were 219 confirmed cases globally, primarily in young men who have sex with men, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. These have been reported in 12 WHO member states where the disease is not endemic, a fact that the WHO says is abnormal, but containable.
The CDC’s Health Alert Network recently published this report on the disease in the US and other non-endemic countries that urges clinicians to be vigilant given the rise of cases not associated with travel to endemic countries. It provides good background and descriptions of clinical presentation, in addition to advice for health departments and the general public.
This situation has also required countries to assess the preparedness of their vaccine stockpiles. The US has two vaccines in its Strategic National Stockpile for smallpox that will also work against monkeypox, for example. As there is no specific vaccine for monkeypox, demand for smallpox vaccines has skyrocketed. Bavarian Nordic‘s smallpox vaccine has proven to be 85% effective against monkeypox and the company is seeing unprecedented demand for a product it normally produces for biodefense stockpiling purposes.
“Unrelenting Violence: Violence Against Health Care in Conflict”
The newest report from Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition was recently released, analyzing attacks on healthcare systems in conflict zones throughout 2021. With more than 200 WHO-confirmed attacks on health care in Ukraine, “…the world’s attention has understandably focused on Russia’s invasion and its apparent strategy of targeting hospitals and ambulances,”—but the crisis is global, the Coalition’s chair, Leonard Rubenstein, said in a Physicians for Human Rights news release. While the report does acknowledge there have been some improvements in accountability for these attacks, Rubenstein also stated, “Perhaps 2022 will be an inflection point, as images and reports of attacks on health care and their consequences in Ukraine continue to go viral, accompanied by frequent and loud demands for accountability – but it won’t be if the lassitude of the international community continues.”
Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel New Edition
West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) recently released a new edition of its Sentinel, “The Biological Threat- Part Two,” as a follow up to the previous part one. In it, Gary Ackerman, Zachary Kallenborn, and Philipp Bleek present a bioterrorism
classification schema to evaluate the pandemic’s impact on bioterrorism, concluding that “…when it comes to bioterrorism, the pandemic probably has not moved the needle much. Although COVID-19 might encourage apocalyptic cults, some radical environmentalists, some extreme right-wing groups, and some Islamist extremist groups toward biological weapons, most other terrorist groups are more likely to be discouraged. The pandemic has bolstered some terrorists’ bio-related capabilities but in at most modest ways. At the same time, lessons from the COVID-19 experience may both help reduce the consequences of a future attack and heighten perceptions of bioterrorism risk.” Drs. Audrey Kurth Cronin of American University and Jaime Yassif of NTI also provided articles for this edition.
“When All Research Is Dual Use”
Issues in Science and Technology recently published this article by Dr. Sam Weiss Evans. In it, Weiss discusses issues with how policymakers view science and scientists, writing “The problems with the myth of asocial science, and its accompanying pantheon of lone hero scientists, are widespread and well known—but not, it seems, to policymakers, who continually reinscribe it. The myth can be found throughout US research, innovation, and governance systems, all of which fail to incentivize scientists to engage with society—or, often, even with those from other fields of study who might bring a different perspective.” He argues that science should instead be understood as a social system wherein science and scientists are questioned on the security implications of their work. He also criticizes “research security” and “research integrity”, arguing that these are part of a “fortress America” understanding of the world and that “Guards, gates, and guns only help when it’s clear what the threats are and what is to be protected. In the world of emerging biotechnology, neither is clear.” He ultimately concludes that social science approaches to understanding these threats need to be at the heart of the National Security Commission for Emerging Biotechnology’s work, writing that it will “…not be easy, as it questions some of the underlying assumptions of science—and of national security—for the last century. But the world in which those foundations were laid down no longer exists.”
“Charting a New Course for Biosafety in a Changing World”
David Gillum, Rebecca Moritz, Dr. Yong-bee Lim (Biodefense Program alumni), and Dr. Kathleen Vogel also recently released a piece in Issues in Science and Technology. They explain that “… recent events—such as the discovery of smallpox vials outside of high containment labs, the transport of inactivated anthrax around the world, and safety concerns around gene drives and a future with do-it-yourself genome editing—highlight gaps in how biosafety governance currently operates.” They argue that now is the time to amend issues in biosafety governance, but also that current proposals to do so “…largely mirror historical precedents and are reactive, overly broad, and inconsistent.” Their work provides good background information on this debate and offers an intriguing perspective on how to best balance allowing science to advance while also being realistic about the risks certain work poses.
Summary Report- “The Ethics of Protecting ‘CRISPR’ Babies: An International Roundtable”
The University of Kent recently hosted a roundtable event focused on the ethical issues posed by “CRISPR babies,” which featured Biodefense Program faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben-Ouagrham Gormley. The event’s summary report was recently published and provides background on this issue, including the recommendations of Ruipeng Lei and Renzong Qiu in China to protect the world’s first three genome-edited children, in addition to panelist comments. Dr. Ben-Ouagrham Gormley was also recently named a runner-up winner of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ McElvany Award for her work, “From CRISPR babies to super soldiers: challenges and security threats posed by CRISPR.”
Launching the Competence Network CBWNet: Achievements of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Future Challenges
The CBWNet recently released this working paper discussing the CWC at 25 years and the recent launch of the CBWNet project itself. The project is “a new, joint endeavour aimed at strengthening the norms against chemical and biological weapons. The four-year project is carried out jointly by the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), the Chair for Public Law and International Law at the University of Gießen, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and the Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker-Centre for Science and Peace Research (ZNF) at the University of Hamburg.” This paper identifies key gaps in international norms against chemical weapons use and how these might be bridged.
Discussions with DTRA Podcast, “Episode 1: DTRA Cleans Up Vozrozhdeniya Island’s 12 Tons of Anthrax”
This episode covers the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program’s Biological Threat Reduction Program’s heavy involvement in Vozrezhdeniye Island, Uzbekistan, commonly referred to as Voz Island, where the CTR Program eliminated more than 12 tons of weaponized anthrax that was abandoned on site. It includes the personal stories and experiences of DTRA people who were on the ground as part of the clean-up crew.
Global Public Policy Institute Podcast- “Nowhere to Hide”
This new episode from GPPI, “Nowhere to Hide”, discusses use of chemical weapons in Syria using first-person perspectives to do so. GPPI writes:
The systematic use of chemical weapons in Syria is one of the most heinous crimes in modern history. These toxic attacks have claimed the lives of almost two thousand people and left thousands more profoundly scarred. Not only did the Syrian regime poison its own people – it also defied the norms that underpin our international community. Assad’s flagrant crimes in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere have raised weighty questions about the future of war. And they have left Syrians with a momentous mission for justice. Nowhere to Hide tells the stories of those who came closest to these events.
Investigating High-Consequence Biological Events of Unknown Origin
The Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative are offering an event exploring the possibility of establishing a new “Joint Assessment Mechanism” — a concept that NTI has been developing in consultation with international experts — to strengthen UN-system capabilities to investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin. The event will take place on Tuesday, 7 June 2022 from 13:00 to 14:30 CEST (Central European Summer Time) in person and online. The event will feature NTI’s Dr. Jaime Yassif and Angela Kane and UNIDIR’s James Revill. RSVP here.
Stakeholder Engagement Meeting on USG Policies for the Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern
NIH will hold a stakeholder engagement meeting on the U.S. Government policies for the oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). The meeting will be held in person at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ and it will be webcast. It is scheduled for June 29, 2022, tentatively 12:00 PM to 6:15 PM ET (9:00 AM to 3:15 PM MT). Additional information will be available soon. Please monitor this site for updates.
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:
Dr. Gregory Koblentz on The Danger of Disinformation
Dr. Koblentz recently gave this talk, “The Danger of Disinformation,” with the Nuclear Threat Initiative discussing Russia’s false claims about Ukrainian biological research facilities.
GMU’s Access to Excellence Podcast- “EP 39: Russia’s War in Ukraine is Tied to Corruption, Organized Crime”
Dr. Louise Shelley, a University Professor and director of Mason’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center explains to George Mason President Gregory Washington the connections between the war in Ukraine and Russian corruption and organized crime, and how criminals and terrorists take advantage in diverse ways of the globalized world in which we live. Shelley’s center exposes that criminality and recently helped take 55 million counterfeit and sub-standard medical masks out of circulation worldwide with the takedown of more than 50,000 online marketplaces and social media posts.