Pandora Report: 9.2.2022

Happy Labor Day Weekend! This week we cover the Biden administration’s first annual report on the progress of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, German officials’ searches of several companies suspected to be exporting restricted chemicals to Russian companies, and more. We also discuss several new publications, including a RAND Corporation ebook discussing North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, and several upcoming events–the most exciting of which are the Biodefense Program’s upcoming open houses for prospective graduate students!

United States Announces First Death of Monkeypox Patient

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) announced the first death of someone diagnosed with monkeypox this week, though Healio reports officials have not determined if the disease was the person’s cause of death or not. “The adult, who died on Aug. 28 at a hospital in Harris County, had “various severe illnesses [and] was also presumptive positive for monkeypox,” according to Harris County Public Health. DSHS stated that the patient was severely immunocompromised and that autopsy results should be available in the coming days. “Monkeypox is a serious disease, particularly for those with weakened immune systems,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS Commissioner. “We continue to urge people to seek treatment if they have been exposed to monkeypox or have symptoms consistent with the disease.”

White House Releases Annual Report on American Pandemic Preparedness Plan

Yesterday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released the first Annual Report on Progress Towards Implementation of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, detailing matters like investment priorities and areas needing the most attention in the coming years. The report documents progresses made in implementing transformational capabilities in the areas of: transforming our medical defenses, ensuring situational awareness, strengthening public health systems, building core capabilities, and managing the mission. It also identifies “utilizing current infectious disease health challenges to “exercise” pandemic preparedness” and “achieving a ‘portfolio view’ of U.S. government pandemic preparedness investment to ensure readiness and maximize impact” as key goals. To achieve these goals, the document identifies numerous smaller goals, ranging in everything from developing flexible vaccine administration techniques to developing standard efficacy testing methods for air treatment technologies.

FDA Authorizes Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccines

The FDA announced this week that the emergency use authorizations in place for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines were amended to authorize bivalent versions for use as a single booster dose at least two months after primary or booster vaccination. This comes as we near fall, during which it is predicted that the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant, which are currently causing most US COVID-19 cases, will circulate heavily. FDA explained in a press release “The bivalent vaccines, which we will also refer to as “updated boosters,” contain two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of SARS-CoV-2 virus, one of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 and the other one in common between the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.” Moderna’s bivalent offering is authorized for use in those 18 and older, while Pfizer’s is authorized for those over 12.

‘“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) of COVID-19,”’ said FDA Commissioner, Dr. Robert M. Califf. ‘“As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.”’

Science published answers to FAQs regarding these vaccines, explaining the authorization process, the data the companies collected in creating these boosters, and the benefits they offer.

German Officials Conduct Raids on Companies Exporting Dual-Use Chemicals to Russia

Earlier this week, German customs officials conducted searches of multiple company facilities across the country on suspicion that the companies have been sending export-restricted materials, including a precursor of Novichok, to Russian companies known to work with the Russian military and intelligence services.

The core company in the network, Riol Chemie GmbH, completed more than 30 shipments of different chemicals and lab equipment to Russia-based Chimmed Group over the course of the last few years without proper export permits. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, “Chimmed is a wholesaler of such goods, and Russian media have reported that its customers include the military and intelligence services.”

Tagesschau explained further that “In the course of the attack on Navalny, the company Riol Chemie GmbH was already in the focus of Western intelligence services. After the assassination, the United States imposed sanctions on Russian state officials and issued export restrictions for a dozen companies. The list, which was not adopted by the EU, also includes Riol Chemie, which has now been searched. The Russian chemical wholesaler Khmmed [Chimmed], which Riol Chemie apparently supplied according to the investigation, also ended up on the list.”

Multiple Countries Issue Joint Statement on “the Contribution of Cooperative Threat Reduction Partnerships to Global Health Security”

The Governments of the United States of America, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Liberia, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Ukraine released this statement this week in light of the opening of the consultative meeting requested by Russia to discuss its false claims that the US is running a network of BW facilities in Ukraine. The statement reads, “The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of strong national capacities for infectious disease surveillance, diagnosis, and response. International cooperation and assistance play a critical role in building these capacities. Our governments have partnered openly and transparently through the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. These partnerships are devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes; they have nothing to do with weapons. These partnerships protect the health of humans and animals in our countries, including in the prevention, detection, and control of infectious disease outbreaks, and in enhancing laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. As partners in this program, we each have firsthand knowledge of its relevance to our shared goal of cooperating to strengthen global health security and reduce the impacts of infectious diseases on our societies. Our governments strongly affirm the common view that such cooperation should not be undermined, but rather promoted and reinforced. Pursuant to Article X, we encourage all Biological Weapons Convention States Parties to work together, including at the forthcoming Review Conference, in support of this goal.”

Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors’ Group on Nuclear Safety and Security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant

The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group issued a statement this week reiterating the G7 Foreign Ministers August 10 statement in “support of the IAEA’s efforts to promote nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.” The statement explains, “The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group remains profoundly concerned by the serious threat the continued control of Ukrainian nuclear facilities by Russian armed forces pose to the safety and security of these facilities. These actions significantly raise the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endanger the population of Ukraine, neighbouring states, and the international community. The Russian Federation must immediately withdraw its troops from within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and respect Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty. We reaffirm that the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and the electricity that it produces rightly belong to Ukraine and stress that attempts by Russia to disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian power grid would be unacceptable. We underline that Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant should not be used for military activities or the storage of military material.”

The statement also reads, “As founders of the G7-led Global Partnership, we have worked together with Ukraine for more than 20 years to increase the safety and security of its nuclear facilities. We therefore have a particular responsibility to support international efforts aimed at sustaining these facilities and assisting Ukraine in countering the serious risks Russia’s war of aggression poses to the safety and security of Ukrainian nuclear installations.”

It concludes with “We deeply regret that Russia blocked consensus at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference because it refused to accept responsibility for the grave situation around the safeguards, safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. This cannot be seen as an act of good faith. Every other NPT state supported the draft outcome. Even though it was not adopted, it provides a solid blueprint for progress on all three NPT pillars.”

“Characterizing the Risks of North Korean Chemical and Biological Weapons, Electromagnetic Pulse, and Cyber Threats”

The RAND Corporation recently published this free ebook discussing the DPRK’s WMD capabilities. “The authors present a theory of deterrence and suggest how the ROK-U.S. alliance could rein in North Korean efforts to augment or enhance its WMD and cyber capabilities and deter the North from attacking the ROK and beyond. Throughout, the authors acknowledge the uncertainties involved and argue that any effective action on the part of the ROK-U.S. alliance will require recognizing and managing those uncertainties.”

“Learning, Relearning, and Not Learning the Lessons of COVID-19”

Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, an alumnus of the Biodefense Program, recently published this OpEd in The Hill. In it, he “…makes the case that to date, there has been no coherent national discussion on the COVID-19 gaps and shortfalls we experienced in our national pandemic preparedness and response systems. These concerns cut across federal departments and agencies; state and local governments; and the private sector, and therefore need to be considered and coordinated across all of these stakeholders.” He further explains, “However, at lower levels changes—policy, organizational and resource decisions—are being implemented piecemeal. Furthermore, despite two and a half years of living through COVID-19, as the money pox outbreak demonstrates we continue to flounder, often repeating the same mistakes. In short, we are “learning, relearning and not learning the lessons of COVID-19.”

“Controlling Chemical Weapons in the New International Order”

National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) recently published this edition of CSWMD Proceedings. In it, “Mr. John Caves, CSWMD Distinguished Fellow, and Dr. Seth Carus, NDU Emeritus Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy examine the breakdown in consensus decision-making at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and place this development in the context of Russia, China, and Iran’s larger challenge to a rules-based international order. The article further considers how this dynamic may play out in the OPCW in the coming years and discusses how the United States can continue to use the Chemical Weapons Convention and OPCW to defend the international norm against chemical weapons while better protecting itself and its allies and partners from a greater chemical weapons threat.”

“Optimizing and Unifying Infection Control Precautions for Respiratory Viral Infections”

The Journal of Infectious Diseases recently published this piece by Klompas and Rhee discussing current guidelines on respiratory precautions for healthcare workers. In it, they argue “…it is high time to modify infection control guidelines for respiratory viruses to recognize that that their transmission is more alike than different and that most transmission is attributable to aerosol inhalation. We recommend switching from the current confusing and non-evidence-based mosaic of different precautions for different viruses to one universal set of respiratory viral precautions that includes wearing gowns, gloves, eye protection, and fitted respirators in well-ventilated spaces.”

“Latest from the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, Issue 3: Summer 2022”

The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence recently released the latest edition of its newsletter recently. This one introduces a new section by the Assistant Director-General for Health Emergency Intelligence, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, and a new collaboration with the Hasso Plattner Institute. It also provides updates on the WHO’s monkeypox response and upcoming events sponsored by the Hub.

“Three Solutions for Public Health—And One Dangerous Idea”

Dr. Tom Frieden, who directed the CDC during the Obama administration, recently published an opinion piece in the Atlantic discussing the way forward for his former agency. In it, he writes, “But even if the CDC’s proposed reforms succeed, much of what’s broken is outside of the agency’s control. The United States suffers from chronic underfunding of local, city, and state public-health departments; a health-care system that is not structured to provide consistent care to patients; lack of standardization across states for collecting and reporting anonymized data for disease detection and response; and a broad increase in political polarization that shrinks the space for nonpartisan action and organizations. White House actions under both Republican and Democratic administrations have undermined the CDC’s credibility, its freedom to speak directly to the media and public, and the public’s perception of its scientific independence.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

The Lawfare Podcast: Sean Ekins and Filippa Lentzos on a Teachable Moment for Dual-Use

“Back in March, a team of researchers published an article in Nature Machine Intelligence showing that a drug discovery company’s AI-powered molecule generator could have a dangerous dual use: The model could design thousands of new biochemical weapons in a matter of hours that were equally as toxic as, if not more toxic than, the nerve agent VX.

Lawfare associate editor Tia Sewell sat down with two of the paper’s authors: Dr. Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science & international security at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and Dr. Sean Ekins, CEO of Collaborations Pharmaceuticals. They discussed the story of their discovery and their reaction to it, as well as how we should think about dual-use artificial intelligence threats more broadly as new technologies expand the potential for malicious use. They also got into why governments need to work more proactively to address the challenges of regulating machine learning software.” Find this episode here.

Technologically Speaking Episode 7: Speed Up the Cleanup

DHS S&T’s podcast “Technologically Speaking has a sobering and important conversation about preparing for chemical and biological contamination. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, the impact of such an event would be staggering. S&T exists, in part, to research and test tools for complex cleanup scenarios that require acting quickly, efficiently and with confidence that hazardous material, like anthrax, is decontaminated. Guest Dr. Don Bansleben, a program manager at S&T specializing in chemical and biological threat detection, talks about the current work S&T is doing with U.S. government partners to prepare for these scenarios.” Find this episode and others here.

Public Health On Call Episode 512: FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf on Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccines, Combatting Misinformation, and Building Trust

From Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health-“Throughout COVID-19, the FDA has been among many government agencies charged with communicating lifesaving information. Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf talks with Dr. Josh Sharfstein about how the politicization of the pandemic raised the stakes for the FDA and how the agency is learning to adapt in an age of rampant misinformation. They also discuss the FDA’s consideration of bivalent vaccines for authorization and what’s next for the pandemic response.” Check it out here.

Interested in Studying Biodefense? Come to Our Information Sessions!

Are you a Pandora Report reader who just can’t get enough? Consider applying to the Schar School’s Biodefense Program, which offers several graduate certificates, an MS in Biodefense (both in-person and online), and a PhD in Biodefense if you’re really into this. On September 15 at 7 pm ET AND October 11 at 12 pm ET, you can join us virtually to learn more about admissions for the MS and graduate certificates, including info on the application process, student experiences, and graduate outcomes. On September 13 at 7 pm ET, prospective PhD students are invited to the Schar School PhD Virtual Open House to learn about the school’s different doctoral programs and hear from faculty members.

Public Meeting-Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

The 21st PACCARB public meeting is tentatively being planned as an in-person event on September 12 and 13 from 9-5 pm ET each day. The meeting will focus on pandemic preparedness and AMR policy. This meeting is open to the public. Members of the public can choose to attend in-person (attendance will be limited) or view the meeting via webcast. The meeting will be held at the Tysons Corner Marriott, 8028 Leesburg Pike, Tysons Corner, Virginia, 22182. Learn more and register here.

Protecting Genetic Information Against Cyber Threats

Join CRDF Global for this event on September 13 at 10 am ET. “Our current lack of genetic information security is more than just an issue for privacy. Our adversaries’ access to our genetic data can be used to find and exploit weaknesses. Genetic data would be required for a bioweapon to be developed against a specific ethnic group or an individual. For tracking a pandemic or potential bioweapon, genetic data from a pathogen must be generated. This pathogen’s genetic data could then be used to recreate and/or enhance its potential. To protect against these threats, we need a genetic information system that protects human and pathogen information from exfiltration. Our current lab environment lacks appropriate cybersecurity, and enhancing lab cybersecurity is no simple task. Join us as will discuss these threats and what can be done to mitigate them.” Learn more and register here.

Monkeypox: Have We Learned Anything from COVID-19?

The Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University will be hosting an event on monkeypox later this month. “Dr. Gerald Parker will moderate a panel of experts, including Drs. Robert Carpenter, Syra Madad, Jennifer A. Shuford, and Robert Kadlec, as they explore the Monkeypox phenomenon. Recently declared a public health crisis by the federal government, Monkeypox is the thing on everyone’s mind. The panel will answer questions such as: Are we making the same mistakes with Monkeypox as we did with COVID-19? How can we do better with this and future pandemic threats? Is this something we need to be concerned about? And more.” This event will take place on September 19 at 5:30 pm CT. Register for the virtual event at tx.ag/dgxNOXU.

Global Patterns of COVID-19-related Violence Against Health Workers

“In many countries, the pandemic has increased violence against physicians, nurses, and other health care providers, partly due to widespread fear and mis/disinformation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Human Rights will gather experts from the global health community for a virtual session examining this worrying development, along with strategies being taken to protect and safeguard the rights of health personnel. The session will include discussion of a recent report by the International Council of Nurses, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Hospital Federation, and World Medical Association on current practices to prevent, reduce, or mitigate violence against health care.” This event will take place on September 21 at 10 am ET. Register here.

Complexity of Pandemics No 2-Exploring Insights from the Social Sciences for Collaborative Intelligence

Join Prof. Michael Bang Petersen (Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark and Founder of the HOPE project), Dr. Julienne Ngoundoung Anoko (Focal Point for Social Science / Risk Communication and Community Engagement at the WHO Health Emergencies Programme’s Regional Office for Africa in Dakar, Senegal), Prof. Ilona Kickbusch (Founder and Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva, Switzerland), and Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu (WHO Assistant Director-General for the Division of Health Emergency Intelligence and Surveillance Systems) for a session “devoted to highlighting the importance of integrating insights from the social sciences into public health surveillance approaches to better avert and manage epidemic and pandemic risks.” This event will be livestreamed on the WHO’s YouTube channel on September 22 at 12:30 pm ET.

2022 BSL4ZNet International Conference

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network is hosting its international conference virtually this year from September 8 through October 13. The conference will convene under the overarching theme of Forging ahead stronger: Strengthening zoonotic disease preparedness. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and best practices, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world. Session 4 on October 13 will feature a panel on “The Future of Global Biorisk Management” featuring our own Dr. Greg Koblentz alongside King’s College London’s Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Mayra Ameneiros, Dr. Rocco Casagrande of Gryphon Scientific, and Dr. Loren Matheson of Defence Research and Development Canada. Learn more and register for the conference here.

Biodefense PhD Student Named Druckman Fellow

Danyale Kellogg, a PhD student in the Biodefense Program, was recently named the Schar School’s latest Druckman Fellow. This fellowship is awarded to support a student’s research that falls into areas like global governance, non-military responses to threats to national and international security, and the study of conflict. Kellogg’s research focuses on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in infectious disease outbreak responses, paying particular attention to the PRC’s failures to notify the WHO of outbreaks in accordance with the IHR and threats such issues pose to international security.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Editorial Fellowships Application Now Open

The Bulletin is now accepting application for its editorial fellows through September 15. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will appoint editorial fellows this fall in two coverage areas: climate change and biosecurity. Editorial fellows will have one-year terms, during which time they will be expected to write four (4) articles or columns (i.e., about one article or column per quarter). The fellows will be paid a $750 honorarium per article or column, for a potential total of $3,000. These will be non-resident appointments, i.e. fellows can write for the Bulletin from anywhere. Fellows will not be employees of the Bulletin. These one-year fellowships are renewable, upon excellent performance. Because the Bulletin is an international publication, fellows need not live in the United States.” Learn more and apply here.

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