Pandora Report: 2.10.2023

Happy (almost) Valentine’s Day! This week we’re covering Russia’s spats with the WHO and continued disinformation efforts, a Biodefense PhD Student’s recent research award, and more. This edition includes plenty of new publications, including several reports from the US and UK governments and the UN on topics ranging from most important health threats to the UN’s assessment of integrating the One Health approach in combatting superbugs. Of course, this one also has this year’s Pandora Report Valentine’s Day cards so you can spread all the love this year.

Biodefense PhD Student, MS Alumna Wins IDA Research Excellence Award

Janet Marroquin Pineda, an Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) Scholar who is currently earning her PhD in Biodefense, recently received IDA’s Award for Research Excellence. IDA said of Marroquin Pineda, “Marroquin Pineda serves as a subject matter expert, provides her team with analytical guidance, and transitions from individual contributor to project lead as needed. She has exhibited skillful leadership, masterful diplomacy and expert ability to uphold quality and objectivity standards on multiple projects. She routinely develops unique methods and creative approaches to complete projects. In addition, her work is consistently well-received by sponsors. Further, Marroquin Pineda has become a thought leader within SFRD’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear portfolio. Her technical skills, analytic leadership and extensive sponsor network across the biotechnology community have been key to growing and maintaining this strategically important portfolio for IDA.” Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz said, “We are very proud of Janet and glad that IDA has recognized how exceptional she is.”

Congratulations to Janet! We are all so proud of you!

Russia Clashing with US, WHO, the Truth…

If you thought we were past Russia making ridiculous claims about supposed American BW facilities in Ukraine, it seems the Russians still just can’t help themselves. On January 30, Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, NBC chief at the Russian Ministry of Defence, claimed once again in a briefing that the United States developed biological weapons in facilities in Ukraine, including enhanced versions of SARS-CoV-2. Yahoo! News explains that “In his remarks, Kirillov claimed to have obtained 20,000 documents that show evidence of “illegal military and biological activities” on the part of the United States in Ukraine. He described the documents as “reference and analytical materials” but provided no other details.”

However, Kirillov went further than he has previously, this time referencing the EcoHealth Alliance in his claims that the US has done work “enhancing the pathogenic characteristics of COVID-19.” The same article explains this further with “The reference to EcoHealth Alliance, also disseminated uncritically by Russian state media, seemed calculated to appeal to Western outlets that have trafficked in conspiracy theories about both the coronavirus and the war in Ukraine. Kirillov said that organization played a “key role” in biological warfare, an assertion that goes well beyond what mainstream critics of EcoHealth Alliance have maintained.” This round of claims also include ones that the US has infected Ukrainian servicemembers, prisoners, and addicts with HIV using these weapons. Of course, this is part of a broader disinformation firehose created by the Russians, as EUvsDisinfo has covered extensively.

This wasn’t the only update in Russia’s saga of international embarrasment this week, as the Russian delegation to the WHO Executive Board called the organization’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine “politicized”. This was after the publication of a report this week discussing the WHO’s emergency response in Ukraine, which has been quite extensive given Russia’s repeated targeting of healthcare facilities in the country and other ongoing problems. Russia attempted to pressure the WHO into revising the report, taking particular issue with the agency’s use of the word “invasion” in reference to what the Russian Federation continues to describe as a “special military operation” in Ukraine. In response, WHO Director-General Tedros said, “I used the same word in a speech last year…I couldn’t find any other word that would represent it because it’s the truth. What could I say?” He later continued, saying “The report is truthful and was written in good faith, and it’s my report and I take full responsibility…We didn’t try to politicize anything. … There was no pressure.”

On a related note, the American Hospital Association recently released an analyst note discussing the Russian hacktivist group, KillNet, and its efforts targeting the US health and public health sector. As the note explains, the group uses DDoS attacks often and has “…previously targeted, or threatened to target, organizations in the healthcare and public health (HPH) sector. For example, Killmilk, a senior member of the KillNet group, has threatened the U.S. Congress with the sale of the health and personal data of the American people because of the Ukraine policy of the U.S. Congress. In December 2022, the pro-Russian hacktivist group claimed the compromise of a U.S.-based healthcare organization that supports members of the U.S. military and claimed to possess a large amount of user data from that organization.”

Scientists and Others Establish Protect Our Future Group

A team of scientists and other professionals have created Protect Our Future, a group that aims to create “…a future free of lab-generated pandemics, a future where reckless research on pathogens is ended, and a future where public trust in science is restored.” Science writes, “Protect Our Future co-founder Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, cites the 1977 influenza pandemic, which killed more than 700,000 people, as an example of what the group hopes to prevent; some researchers believe it was sparked by a leak of influenza from a lab in the Soviet Union. And Ebright and his new group also think virology experiments at a lab in Wuhan, China, could have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a lack of direct evidence for that scenario, Ebright has regularly tweeted that officials at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), which helped fund that work, potentially share blame for the deaths of millions in the current pandemic.”

The group hopes to reduce the number of laboratories undertaking research they deem problematic, and it is primarily interested in educating the public to influence the discussion of this topic among policymakers. Naturally, this is in contrast to those who argue that objectives like this and those in similar proposed legislation would inhibit or prevent beneficial research. However, others have also criticized the new group’s approach, which Science also explains: “But Stanford University microbiologist David Relman, who was part of the Cambridge Working Group, objects to the new organization’s “heavy top-down approach” and the lack of involvement from scientists who do research on dangerous human pathogens. He says guidelines crafted with input from scientists are more likely to change behavior without impeding research than rigid, punitive laws. Relman co-chairs a similar effort, the Pathogens Project, launched in September 2022 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to consider how to conduct responsible research with high-risk microbes. The Pathogens Project, he says, has a more “bottom-up” approach that incorporates the views of scientists working in the field.”

Spread the Love with Pandora Report Valentine’s Day Cards

Share the love with friends and family in style this year using our Valentine’s Day cards!

“Expanding the Australia Group’s Chemical Weapons Precursors Control List with a Family-Based Approach”

Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz recently co-authored this article with Costanzi and Cupitt in Pure and Applied Chemistry: “The Australia Group (AG) is a forum of like-minded states seeking to harmonize export controls to prevent the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. The AG Chemical Weapons Precursors list features dual-use chemicals that can be used as precursors for the synthesis of chemical weapons, all individually enumerated. This is in contrast with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Schedules, which, alongside entries describing discrete chemicals, also include entries that describe families of chemicals. By using families of chemicals, the CWC achieves the objective of covering with a single entry a wide array of related chemicals of concern, including chemicals that have not yet been made. There are practical reasons why the AG Chemical Weapons Precursors list is exclusively based on the enumeration of individual chemicals. A cheminformatics tool of which we have developed a prototype, the Nonproliferation Compliance Cheminformatics Tool (NCCT), has the potential to enable export control officers to handle control lists that contain families of chemicals. Thus, it opens the way to expand the AG Chemical Weapons Precursors list to a family-based approach for some of its entries. Such a change would result in a closer alignment of the chemical space covered by the AG Chemical Weapons Precursors list with that covered by the CWC Schedules, thus closing loopholes that could be exploited by proliferators.”

“Preparing for Success at the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention: A Guide to the Issues”

“The Fifth CWC Review Conference is expected to take place in the second quarter of 2023. This event presents an important opportunity for CWC States Parties to take stock of the past and chart the future of this important disarmament agreement.”

“Progress with the CWC will however require careful preparation both in terms of the development of substantive inputs and ideas, but also raising awareness and understanding of the CWC and the Review Conference process. To support the CWC delegates, this report includes factual material on the historical experiences related to preparations, proposals, procedures, and participation in past Review Conferences.”

“It also includes a brief, balanced analysis of salient issues that are likely to be addressed at the Fifth Review Conference. Furthermore, it makes recommendation for preparing for the Review Conference.”

“The NIH-Led Research Response to COVID-19”

Science recently published this piece from Collins et al. discussing the NIH’s work to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: “Though the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of at least 6.5 million individuals worldwide, is not yet over, it is not too soon to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the research response and some of the lessons that can be learned. Much important research has investigated key public health and clinical issues such as masking, indoor air ventilation, and prone ventilation. But, arguably, no research has been more innovative and impactful than that of the biomedical community around vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Drawing on our experience leading US-driven elements of this global biomedical research effort, we review here major cross-sector initiatives led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its partners. We outline key milestones…and crucial lessons learned, with the goal of informing and guiding the research community’s response to future pandemics…”

“American Democracy and Pandemic Security: Strengthening the U.S. Pandemic Response in a Free Society”

Check out this new report from the CSIS Global Health Policy Center , Brown University Pandemic Center , and COVID Collaborative discussing the findings from the first meeting of the Democracy and Pandemic Security roundtable. They write in part, “Going forward, a bipartisan approach is needed to protect public health and work to preserve individual freedom, drawing on the lived experiences of states and localities that did better at reducing deaths and hospitalizations while navigating impacts on education, the economy, and society. Such an effort will be mindful of the politics that have divided Americans during the Covid-19 response and will engage leaders and institutions reflecting the strength and pluralism of the United States to learn from the past and build a better future. A new, pragmatic consensus is needed that bridges deep divides and is fueled by candor, self-criticism, humility, a determined optimism, and civility. Mistakes stretch across every acre, as do quiet successes. Finding new solutions is the challenge. This report provides a description of the first convening and major findings of the Democracy and Pandemic Security roundtable.”

“Public Health Preparedness: HHS Should Plan for Medical Countermeasures Development and Manufacturing Risks”

This recent study from the Government Accountability Office reports on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic and HHS’ use of Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing (CIADM) funds. However, HHS is ending the CIADM to transition to the National Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Partnership (BioMaP). GAO explains that, “BioMaP is early in its development, and it is unclear how BioMaP will address some of the challenges faced by the CIADM program, as in the following examples.

  • BioMaP is expected to use a different contracting structure intended to provide more incentives for industry partners to participate. However, this different structure requires additional expertise to manage effectively. Moreover, HHS told GAO that its contracting staff had previously faced resource challenges using this different contracting structure for other programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. HHS officials said in April 2022 that the agency has half the contracting staff needed to manage its contracting portfolio. This creates the risk that the agency may not have enough resources and expertise to manage this different structure effectively.
  • HHS does not have a sustainable source of funding for the new program model, and it has not yet developed detailed plans or budgets. HHS officials said that, without sustained funding for BioMaP or a similar program, the agency would be unprepared to respond to the next pandemic.”

As a result, GAO “…is recommending that HHS incorporate into the development of its new program model an approach to systematically assess, and respond to, known challenges and risks associated with advanced development and manufacturing of medical countermeasures.”

“UKHSA Advisory Board: Preparedness for Infectious Disease Threats”

This report from the UK Health Security Agency’s Advisory Board aims to outline “…current infectious diseases threats, through the dominant routes of transmission and highlight the preparedness work within the organisation.” The report finds in part, “The UK has strong public health infrastructure in place, including robust surveillance systems, laboratories, and emergency response plans. Key components of this are outlined below, including developments to strengthen and improve. UKHSA will need to review the funding models available for each of these areas and agree the priorities for funding for future financial years. UKHSA has also enhanced its preparedness through the Centre for Pandemic Preparedness (CPP) and delivery and engagement with the G7 100-day mission for diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.”

“100 Days Mission: First Implementation Report”

“The independent International Pandemic Preparedness Secretariat (IPPS) has released a new report highlighting progress in the 100 Days Mission, an international effort to ensure that safe, effective vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics are available within 100 days of the onset of future pandemic threats. Victor J. Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), is a member of the IPPS steering group and co-chair of the IPPS Science and Technology Expert Group, which provides technical input and assurance to the 100 Days Mission. “It is my privilege to serve as co-chair of this expert group, which will provide critical advice and evaluation of progress toward the 100 Days Mission,” Dzau shared.”

“Bracing for Superbugs: Strengthening Environmental Action in the One Health Response to Antimicrobial Resistance”

New from the UN Environment Programme: “The report Bracing for Superbugs: Strengthening environmental action in the One Health response to antimicrobial resistance provides evidence that the environment plays a key role in the development, transmission and spread of AMR.  Prevention is at the core of the action and environment is a key part of the solution.”

“The report aims to demystify and unpack the different, while interconnected, aspects of the environmental dimensions of AMR, offering a comprehensive overview of scientific findings on the subject. It provides actionable evidence of the importance of the environment in the development, transmission and spread of AMR, and it shows that environmental dimensions of AMR are multifaceted and the response rests on collaboration between sectors. A concerted systems approach such as “One Health,” which recognizes that the health of people, animals, plants and the environment are closely linked and interdependent, is the approach needed to tackle it.”

“This report analyzes the three economic sectors and their value chains that are key drivers of AMR development and spread in the environment: pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, agriculture and food, and healthcare, together with pollutants from poor sanitation, sewage and waste effluent in municipal systems. The report synthesizes current knowledge gaps, and it shows that while several actions are ongoing, more needs to be done and offers solutions to prevent and respond to AMR.”

“A One Health response to AMR will not only help reduce the risk and burden of AMR on societies but will also help address the triple planetary crisis.”

“Tracking the Bird Flu, Experts See a Familiar Threat–and a Virus Whose Course is Hard to Predict”

Helen Branswell discusses H5N1 in this piece for STAT News, writing about the history of this virus and Dr. Keiji Fukuda’s, a physician and epidemiologist who specializes in influenza, and others’ experience with it. She discusses the complex concerns surrounding its recent spread in a Spanish mink farm and potential changes in its epidemiology and ecology, writing “It is not clear how the virus entered the farm. But it seems possible, perhaps even probable, that at some point H5N1 spread from mink to mink. “Our findings also indicate that an onward transmission of the virus to other minks may have taken place in the affected farm,” the scientists who reported the event wrote in the journal Eurosurveillance. “This is suggested by the increasing number of infected animals identified after the confirmation of the disease and the progression of the infection from the initially affected area to the entire holding…The mere idea of mink-to-mink transmission gives flu researchers pause. If a virus can transmit from one mammal to another, what’s to stop it from transmitting between other mammalian species — like ours?”

Her piece concludes with a haunting quotation from Fukuda-“Fukuda concurred. “What has become clear to me over time is that the big challenge is not the viruses. That’s not what gives me a pit in my stomach,” he said. “The real challenge is whether people, whether governments, whether policymakers have the ability to actually address the challenge in the way that needs to be done. And I don’t see so much which encourages me, to be blunt. That’s what gives me a pit in my stomach.”

“Laying the Groundwork for the Bioeconomy”

Sarah Carter’s recent piece for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) discusses the federal government’s role in the bioeconomy and the findings of an FAS workshop on this topic. She writes in part: “The December 7, 2022 workshop focused on government-based financial and economic tools and how they can best support the bioeconomy. Speakers provided context by describing the ways that the U.S. government is already planning to support regional biomanufacturing infrastructure through the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engine program and through the Department of Commerce’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge. Workshop participants also generated a range of specific ideas, including investment in networks of biomanufacturing infrastructure, direct government investment (e.g. tax incentives, subsidies, procurement, and improved grant opportunities) as well as development of resources and education to support small companies. Diverse workforce development was also identified as a critical factor, with an emphasis on programs and partnerships for technical programs and community colleges rather than Ph.D.-level education. The discussions revealed two overarching themes:

  • There is a need for investments in a wide diversity of scale-up facilities and infrastructure for bio-based products.
  • Investments will need to be sustained over time. Because biomanufacturing is rapidly advancing, ongoing funding will be needed to ensure that the facilities that are built and workforce development programs that are established now will be able to change and adapt in the future.”

“First Regional Workshop to Operationalize the Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences: Mitigating Biorisks and Governing Dual-Use Research (the Framework) in the WHO African Region”

This event summary from the WHO discusses a January workshop co-hosted by the WHO Science Division in collaboration with the WHO Regional Office for Africa and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to operationalize the framework in the WHO African region. “The objectives of the two-day technical workshop were to present the framework and other related existing regional initiatives; to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and experience of countries on the challenges and needs in mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research; to strengthen collaboration among multiple and multidisciplinary stakeholders within the WHO African region; to test specific elements of the framework, including the six-step approach and the checklist for the national governments, and identify the needs for additional toolkits or regional guidance; and to recommend concrete actions for the roll-out of a national implementation of the framework.” A detailed report of this workshop will be published at a later date.

“What’s a Spillover? A Spillback? Here are Definitions for the Vocab of a Pandemic”

Max Barnhart’s recent piece for NPR covers commonly used terms like spillover, spillback, outbreak, epidemic, and more to help in understanding upcoming pieces in the “Goats and Soda: Stories of Life in a Changing World” series.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

“Special Online Briefing with Ambassador Joseph Manso, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons”

Amb. Joseph Manso’s briefing on the OPCW IIT report regarding the Assad regime’s use of CW in Douma in early 2018 is available here in both written and MP3 format. This briefing provides an overview of the IIT report’s findings and implications beyond these specific findings.

Publication Launch Event-Strategic Trade Review: 10th Issue

Join the Strategic Trade Research Institute on February 15, at 9 am EST for this launch event moderated by Dr. Andrea Viski, a Schar School adjunct professor who teaches courses on strategic trade controls. Featured authors will engage in a virtual interactive panel discussion discussing the new edition. Learn more and register here.

The 13th Annual Dupont Summit on Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy

“The purpose of the Dupont Summit is to promote interdisciplinary conversation about pressing issues related to the politics and policy of science, technology and the environment. The conference mirrors the interest of the PSO and its partners in promoting conversation about current policy concerns. The conference brings together academics, government, business and social leaders from a variety of backgrounds.” The hybrid conference will meet on Friday, February 17. Learn more and register here.

Personal Protective Equipment and Personal Protective Technology Product Standardization for a Resilient Public Health Supply Chain

“The National Academies will convene a public workshop, March 1-2, to examine standards gaps related to personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal protective technology (PPT). The event will explore innovative approaches and technologies needed to update and streamline the U.S. standardization system for PPE and PPT in support of supply chain resiliency. Policymakers, manufacturers, users, and relevant technical contributors will discuss ways to improve the effectiveness, safety, supply stability, and accessibility of PPE and PPT in health care settings and increase usage by critical infrastructure workers and the general public.” Learn more and register here.

Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is: This disease, named for a Brazilian physician, is caused by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, and is commonly spread by kissing bugs. What is it?

“The live insect depicted here, in this dorsal view, was a species of Triatoma, or kissing bug, able to transmit the protozoan pathogen, Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes the incurable illness known as Chagas disease.” | Credit: CDC PHIL

Shout out to Georgios P. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In February 1964, Albert Nickel, an animal caretaker at Fort Detrick, contracted and died from a disease after he was bitten by an infected rodent. What is the name of the disease and what is its causative agent?” is Bolivian hemorrhagic fever caused by Machupo virus.

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