Pandora Report: 3.5.2021

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) released the National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool, the first iteration of a new tool for understanding responsibilities following a disaster or emergency. The norms against the use of chemical weapons have been eroding, adding another challenge for the international community and the new Biden administration. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, shares his review of Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.

The “Red Line” That Wasn’t

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (CWs) against his own people is the greatest challenge the Chemical Weapons Convention has ever faced. This breach of the taboo against CW use sparked numerous national and international investigations to determine the details of exactly what happened and who had done it. These investigations, in turn, were severely complicated by numerous factors. Investigators had to deal with (1) the dangers of operating during a complex civil war, (2) multiple belligerents using CWs on the battlefield (both the Syrian government and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS), and (3) the Syrian government’s repeated denials and counter-accusations of any CW use. Syria’s dubious position was backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the public debate and, most importantly, at the United Nations Security Council, which provided Assad significant protection from international sanction. The global opposition to Syria’s use of CWs was widespread, but was led by the United States primarily under Barack Obama and also Donald Trump. The debate about what happened in Syria—and especially about how the world reacted to it—will undoubtedly rage for years to come. Joby Warrick’s Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World is a useful addition to this debate, but the definitive book on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war remains to be written. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a revealing review of the book. Read it here.

How S&T’s Past Bioagent Research Informs Current and Future Pandemic Response

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), along with many other research and development institutions, was suddenly forced to shift priorities when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Researchers at S&T’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) – the first DHS national laboratory – hit the ground running “to learn as much as possible about the coronavirus so that our nation is better armed to fight, control and defeat the deadly COVID-19 disease.” NBACC researchers were asked: When faced with the challenge of a lifetime, where do you start? NBACC was established in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks to study “bioterrorist threats that endanger our homeland security,” so these scientists went back to the basics as it did 20 years ago. For SARS-CoV-2, the group studied how stable the virus is in the air and how it can be transmitted. According to Dr. Victoria Wahl, Deputy Director of NBACC’s National Biological Threat Characterization Center, “The same unique capabilities NBACC has established for biodefense research can also be applied to a new agent like SARS-CoV-2 to help us understand it better.” S&T’s risk assessment practices “consider the risk posed by a variety of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents that could potentially be used by terrorists to harm the US.” Those practices helped S&T develop a Master Question List (MQL) for Ebola, and that list informed work regarding SARS-CoV-2. In the early days of the pandemic, NBACC used the knowledge garnered from the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak to help inform its efforts to better understand SARS-CoV-2. Turning toward pandemic preparedness for the future, “NBACC is using lessons learned from all these research experiences to refine and streamline the lab’s planning and workflows, so response to future outbreaks will be swifter from day one.”

Introducing the Launch of the National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool (NRF-PLAT)

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) just released the first iteration of a new tool for understanding responsibilities following a disaster or emergency. The National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool, NRF-PLAT, was inspired by input and questions from users of PNNL’s Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool (B-PLAT). The NRF-PLAT currently captures 474 requirements, recommendations, value statements and training opportunities excerpted verbatim from the main NRF document, fourth edition. Users can view and parse requirements, recommendations, value statements and training opportunities using facets that include Primary Partner, Specific Designee, Additional Partners/Designees, Specific Roles, Community Lifelines, Emergency Support Functions and Section of the NRF. The facets can also be displayed in visual format using icicle and sunburst charts, which allow a user to graphically display, for example, the relative number of requirements, recommendation, value statements and training opportunities assigned to the federal government versus individuals, families and households. NRF-PLAT is publicly available here.  

Criminal Inquiries Loom Over al-Assad’s Use of Chemical Arms in Syria

Investigations into Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria may soon be underway in France and Germany, and could lead to prosecutions of al-Assad and his associates. Syrian President al-Assad and his accomplices should be held accountable for “some of the worst atrocities committed in the decade-old Syria conflict.” Judges in a special war crimes unit of France’s Palais de Justice received a complaint about the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, which were filed by three international human rights groups. This complaint requests a criminal investigation into al-Assad, his brother, and the senior advisers and military officials that formed the chain of command. Lawyers have stated that the judges will likely accept the complaint. The request for a criminal investigation is based, in part, on a two-year study of the Syrian chemical weapons program, and this study surpasses the work of other international inquires. The study used a variety of sources with links to or knowledge of the program: defectors, former insiders, employees, and engineers. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, reviewed the study and said, “it brings to light new information from defectors and insiders.” Dr. Koblentz called it the “most comprehensive and detailed account of the Syrian weapons program available perhaps outside the intelligence services. It maps out new details on the chain of command and shows how large and complex this program was. And it can name names.”

Chemical Weapons Norms

Over the past four years since now-President Joe Biden was in the White House, chemical weapons (CWs) attacks have continued within and beyond the borders of Syria, and new state perpetrators have emerged. Indeed, the norms against the use of chemical weapons established by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) have been unashamedly violated by state and nonstate actors. Such perpetrators include North Korea, Russia, and, of course, the al-Assad regime of Syria. Any actor that uses chemical weapons must be held accountable in order to reinforce the norms and validate the notion that violations of the CWC will be punished; “consequences can deter other actors from engaging in chemical weapons programs and attacks.” The Trump administration was inconsistent and variable in its responses to chemical weapons uses. Trump mobilized a military response to CW use in Syria, but arranged to meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un – after Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated using VX nerve agent. The erosion of the global norm against chemical weapons use requires international action and cooperation to counter the degradation and restore compliance. Reinforcement of the norm against CW use will require bolstering the existing mechanisms of the CWC, while simultaneously supporting the ability of the international community to respond to the use of CWs by any actor and to hold perpetrators accountable. Additionally, states should “clarify and codify the rights and privileges a state risks losing for violating the CWC, establish a precedent for challenge inspections, and expand the mandate for the attributive Investigation and Identification Team.” Given the lack of unity within the United Nations Security Council, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) plays a vital role in pursuing actions to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use. As a reminder, the 96th Session of the Executive Council of the OPCW will take place on 9-12 March.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Third Vaccine Gets Emergency Use Authorization

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization on 27 February to Johnson & Johnson’s single dose COVID-19 vaccine. This is the third vaccine designed to fight SARS-CoV-2 that has received authorization in the US. It should simplify the logistics of the vaccination campaign, because it is a single dose inoculation and it can be stored for up to three months in a refrigerator. The other two vaccines, which are based on a different technological platform, require two shots and must be stored at extremely low temperatures. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an adenovirus vector vaccine, a 30-year-old technology based on genetically engineered common cold viruses. The multinational corporation will provide the vaccine on a non-profit basis for emergency pandemic use, and intends to produce 100 million doses in the first half of 2021.

The Last Thing Health Workers Should Have to Worry About

Even as they were making countless sacrifices during the pandemic, healthcare workers were targeted in nearly 1,200 attacks and threats of violence last year, according to a new report by Insecurity Insight and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. According to the research, 824 of these attacks were related to conflicts—hospitals bombed in Yemen, doctors abducted in Nigeria, robbery and ransom in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a disturbing twist, 412 of these attacks were directly related to the pandemic, including: threats, beatings, and assaults with stones or hot liquids. Pandemic-triggered violence was especially pronounced in India and Mexico, but it is a “truly global crisis,” affecting 79 countries, said Insecurity Insight’s Christina Wille, who led development of a new interactive map. Additionally, there have been violent reactions to mask mandates and arson attacks on COVID-19 testing facilities. The failures of year one of the COVID-19 pandemic need to be replaced with immediate action to safeguard health workers, said Leonard Rubenstein, chair of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. Rubenstein highlights recommendations in a research brief accompanying the interactive map: counter disinformation; end repression against healthcare workers who speak up; increase protection for healthcare workers; and hold perpetrators of violence and threats accountable.

CID Agent Sought Puffer Fish Toxin Before Poisoning His Wife, Charges Allege

A special agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) is “suspected of poisoning his wife two years ago and allegedly tried to acquire a toxin derived from puffer fish.” This week, Staff Sergeant Lesly J. Lindor was formally charged with the 3 September 2018 murder of Rachelle Lindor, his wife. The couple lived near Fort Hood in Harker Heights, Texas. According to records acquired by Army Times, in the months leading up to his wife’s death, Lindor “attempted to acquire tetrodotoxin for use as a weapon.” Tetrodotoxin is a potent neurotoxin found in puffer fish, globefish, and toadfish. In addition to the murder, Lindor is charged with attempting to violate the Federal Biological Weapons statute.

Book Review – The “Red Line” That Wasn’t

By Chris Quillen, Biodefense PhD Student

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (CW) against his own people is the greatest challenge the Chemical Weapons Convention has ever faced. This breach of the taboo against CW use sparked numerous national and international investigations to determine the details of exactly what happened and who had done it. These investigations, in turn, were severely complicated by numerous factors. Investigators had to deal with (1) the dangers of operating during a complex civil war, (2) multiple belligerents using CWs on the battlefield (both the Syrian government and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS), and (3) the Syrian government’s repeated denials and counter-accusations of any CW use. Syria’s dubious position was backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the public debate and, most importantly, at the United Nations Security Council, which provided Assad significant protection from international sanction. The global opposition to Syria’s use of CWs was widespread, but was led by the United States primarily under Barack Obama and also Donald Trump. The debate about what happened in Syria—and especially about how the world reacted to it—will undoubtedly rage for years to come. Joby Warrick’s Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World is a useful addition to this debate, but the definitive book on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war remains to be written. 

A Washington Post reporter since 1996, Warrick offers a compelling, character-driven narrative with interesting new insights and impressive detail on key aspects of the story. His focus on individual actors, however, offers both strengths and weaknesses. Warrick should be commended for telling the compelling stories of (1) everyday Syrians risking their lives to get the evidence of Assad’s CW use to the world, (2) international inspectors from the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) overcoming amazing odds to gather the proof, and (3) American bureaucrats courageously and creatively destroying the part of Syria’s CW turned over by the Assad government. These individual stories are invaluable and offer useful guidance for similar efforts to document and destroy CW in the future. However, the focus on the individual often obscures the broader strategic context and limits the perspective of the book. At its best, this approach presents unique historical insights, but, at its worst, it runs the risk of allowing each individual perspective to overwhelm the big picture. As the saying goes, “Every person is the hero of their own story.” While many true heroes can be found in the pages of Warrick’s book, the temptation to put one’s own spin on history is evident and ultimately detracts from the larger message.

Warrick covers numerous sides to the story through his characters, but focuses primarily on the US angle, the most accessible to him. The life-threatening challenges inside of Syria are largely viewed through the eyes of refugees who later escaped the war in their homeland. ISIS’s efforts to develop and use sulfur mustard and the coalition efforts to destroy it are told through a largely unrepentant ISIS detainee who worked in the sulfur program.. The political battles at the UN are recounted from various diplomats and bureaucrats. 

The bulk of the book, however, addresses the US response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The title of the book makes this focus clear, but also reveals the two competing narratives of the story. The main title “Red Line” is taken from President Obama’s August 2012 statement in which he implied the US military would take action if Syria used chemical weapons: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” The fact that no such military action followed Syria’s repeated confirmed use of CWs remains one of the more controversial aspects of the Obama administration’s record. Eric Sterner has argued the lack of a response destroyed America’s credibility on the issue such that later explicit threats to use force after Assad continued to use CWs were ineffective. For his part, Obama acknowledges that his credibility was on the line after his previous statements, but defends his decision not to act as being in “America’s interest.” Warrick largely defends Obama’s decision citing the lack of Congressional and public support for US military action, but these justifications seem to come too late. The fact is Obama issued a red line and failed to follow through. As a result, the taboo against CW use was severely weakened. 

The second part of Warrick’s story is captured in the subtitle “America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.” While legitimate debate can be had about whether Syria’s chemical weapons constituted “the most dangerous arsenal in the world,” the successful effort to destroy the bulk of Assad’s chemical weapons is undoubtedly a victory to be celebrated and Warrick should be commended for his work in capturing this account. Warrick’s inside stories about the development of the hydrolysis systems that were used to break down Syria’s CWs and the subsequent destruction that took place at sea onboard the Cape Ray are fascinating tales that need to be told.         

In the final analysis, the juxtaposition of the failure of Obama to enforce his own “red line” and the success of the effort to destroy most of Syria’s CW carried out by his administration is striking. The credibility of US government statements, however, is not the real issue here. The failure of the taboo against CW use—and the failure of the international community to enforce that taboo in any meaningful way—is the real story and the real tragedy. The fact is Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, but he remains in power in Damascus, weakened but unapologetic. Assad claims to have given up his entire chemical arsenal, but he still retains (and still uses) his chemical weapons to this day, fewer in number but every bit as deadly. For a world that claimed to learn its lesson after Saddam Hussein’s extensive use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, these failures are egregious and heartbreaking. So much for that “red line.”

Pandora Report: 2.26.2021

The global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding and coordinated international action is needed to restore it. Scientists are racing to determine if the COVID-19 vaccines prevent people from contracting SARS-CoV-2 and spreading the virus. Three biodefense graduate students share their summaries and takeaways from the 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium.

6th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium: Emerging Biorisk Challenges in Agriculture

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the chief scientific in-house research agency of the USDA. The USDA ARS hosted the 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, held virtually in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, on February 2- 4, 2021. This symposium brought together experts in academia, research, government, and industry to discuss the emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. This year, three students from the Biodefense Graduate Program attended the conference: Rachel-Paige Casey, Michelle Grundahl, and Stevie Kiesel. Their summaries and takeaways are available here.

Dual-Use Biology: Building Trust and Managing Perceptions of Intent

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a mixed methods social scientist researching biological threats at King’s College London, considers how the international community can use the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention framework to strengthen compliance monitoring of rapidly increasing dual-use capacities around the globe. Lentzos’ analysis in The Nonproliferation Review comes at a time of heightened concern about potential future biological-weapons threats. It presents three conceptual layers within the treaty regime which states can draw from to inform their compliance judgments: one legally binding, one politically binding, and one wholly voluntary. The article outlines how these were established and how they have been used so far, and argues for an incremental, inclusive, practical, and forward-looking approach to evolving these structures to better manage perceptions of the intent behind dual-use capacities, and to further trust between states. Read the article here.

Reinforcing the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons Use

The global norm against the creation and deployment of chemical weapons has eroded, and continues to erode. Coordinated international action is needed to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, which will require “strengthening existing mechanisms in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) while shoring up the international community’s ability to respond to the use of chemical weapons by any state or non-state actor and to hold them accountable.” Given the lack of unity among the United Nations Security Council, “it is vitally important that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and coalitions of like-minded states pursue actions to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use.” Julia Masterson from the Arms Control Association recommends that states-parties “clarify and codify the rights and privileges a state risks losing for violating the CWC, establish a precedent for challenge inspections, and expand the mandate for the attributive Investigation and Identification Team.” Beyond clarifying and codifying, expanding the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, establishing a clearinghouse for details about perpetrators of chemical weapons, and pursuing the prosecution of users as war criminals could help reinforce the norm.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Feds Now Say Right-Wing Extremists Responsible for Majority of Deadly Terrorist Attacks Last Year

For the first time, the US government is acknowledging that right-wing extremists were responsible for most of the fatal domestic terrorist attacks that occurred last year. This acknowledgement is based on an internal report circulated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week. The report was drafted by the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center funded by DHS, and shared with police and law enforcement agencies nationwide through an intelligence-sharing system established after the 9/11 attacks. The Center reviewed last year’s domestic terrorist incidents and found that “right-wing [domestic violent extremists] were responsible for the majority of fatal attacks in the Homeland in 2020.” Indeed, in October 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released an analysis of domestic terrorist activity in the US for just the first eight months of 2020, finding that “white supremacists and other right-wing extremists conducted two-thirds of the terrorist plots and attacks in the nation during that period.”

A GDP for Nature: How Measuring the Health of the Natural World Might Prevent the Next Pandemic

SARS-CoV-2 has undeniably revealed that the world is vulnerable to infectious diseases. This is not a new revelation, but one that has long been ignored. The factors that drive zoonoses to jump to humans from animals – the wildlife trade, intensive agriculture, deforestation, urbanization – are well-known. As these factors persist, infectious disease events (epidemics and pandemics) will continue to arise. Zoonoses account for about 60% of all known human infectious disease agents, as a result of direct or indirect interaction between humans and animals. The health and well-being of a country depend on meeting the dietary needs of the population. Dr. Laura Kahn, a physician and research scholar with the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, emphasizes that “to ensure that our food systems do not raise the risks of another pandemic, countries should prioritize the replenishment and protection of their natural resources and biodiverse ecosystems.” Dr. Kahn recommends formulating a One Health calculus akin to gross domestic product (GDP) – the total value of services and goods produced in one year for a nation as a measure of economic prosperity. This calculation could “measure the status of a nation’s natural resources, the purity of its environments, the biodiversity of its ecosystems, the sustainability of its agriculture, the health of its flora and fauna, the resiliency of its food security, and the life expectancies of its peoples.”

The Quest to Rid Facebook of Vaccine Misinformation

A number of creative conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines have spread across social media platforms like wildfire: it causes blindness or infertility; it contains a microchip or fetal tissue; and Bill Gates is using it to get even wealthier. An analysis of more than 14 million social-media posts mentioning vaccines or vaccination during a three-month period last year discovered the emergence of two vaccine narratives: (1) emphasis on safety concerns and (2) focus on mistrust of the individuals and institutions involved in vaccine development. Facebook (along with Instagram, its subsidiary)  “drives vaccine discourse on social media” by allowing conspiracy-related content, but it has recently taken some actions to quell the spread of vaccine misinformation on the platform. Nearly one year ago, Facebook stated that it was collaborating with several fact-checking organizations to “detect false claims, hide some groups and pages from Facebook’s search function, and add warning labels with more context.” At the end of 2020, the platform banned certain COVID-19 vaccine-related content, including claims that the vaccine contains fetal tissue or carries the Antichrist’s “mark of the beast.” Now, Facebook is consulting with leading health organizations to expand its efforts to remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram about COVID-19, vaccines for the disease, and vaccines in general. Unfortunately, some experts question if these actions are sufficient to stop misinformation from invading the platform and spreading across its users. A partnership between Critica, Weill Cornell Medicine, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania launched a pilot program that is “deploying infodemiologists to respond directly when misinformation about vaccines is posted by Facebook users commenting on news articles.” Infodemiologists are “health experts who fight false information in a similar way to how epidemiologists with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service fight epidemics.” These experts work on the virtual frontlines to detect any outbreak of misinformation or disinformation that threatens public health.

Coronapod: Our Future with an Ever-Present Coronavirus

What’s the endgame for the COVID-19 pandemic? Is a world without SARS-CoV-2 possible, or is the virus here to stay? The latest episode of Coronapod, a podcast from Nature that provides a weekly pandemic report, discusses what it means if the novel coronavirus becomes endemic. A recent Nature survey asked over 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working on the coronavirus whether it could be eradicated. The survey found that 90% of respondents expect SARS-CoV-2 to become endemic – remain in circulation in parts of the world for many years – but it could pose less danger over time. Listen to the Coronapod here.

Biosecurity Risks Associated with Vaccine Platform Technologies

A new article in Vaccine, co-authored by Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, discusses the biosecurity risks surrounding vaccine platform technologies. Vaccine platforms have been critical for accelerating the timeline of COVID-19 vaccine development. Faster vaccine timelines demand further development of these technologies. Currently investigated platform approaches include virally vectored and RNA-based vaccines, as well as DNA vaccines and recombinant protein expression system platforms, each featuring different advantages and challenges. Viral vector-based and DNA vaccines in particular have received a large share of research funding to date. Platform vaccine technologies may feature dual-use potential through informing or enabling pathogen engineering, which may raise the risk for the occurrence of deliberate, anthropogenic biological events. Research on virally vectored vaccines exhibits relatively high dual-use potential for two reasons. First, development of virally vectored vaccines may generate insights of particular dual-use concern such as techniques for circumventing pre-existing anti-vector immunity. Second, while the amount of work on viral vectors for gene therapy exceeds that for vaccine research, work on virally vectored vaccines may increase the number of individuals capable of engineering viruses of particular concern, such as ones closely related to smallpox. Other platform vaccine approaches, such as RNA vaccines, feature relatively little dual-use potential. The biosecurity risk associated with platform advancement may be minimized by focusing preferentially on circumventing anti-vector immunity with non-genetic rather than genetic modifications, using vectors that are not based on viruses pathogenic to humans, or preferential investment into promising RNA-based vaccine approaches. To reduce the risk of anthropogenic pandemics, structures for the governance of biotechnology and life science research with dual-use potential need to be reworked. Scientists outside of the pathogen research community, for instance those who work on viral vectors or oncolytic viruses, need to become more aware of the dual-use risks associated with their research. Both public and private research-funding bodies need to prioritize the evaluation and reduction of biosecurity risks. Read the article here.

Can COVID Vaccines Stop Transmission? Scientists Race to Find Answers

Even as many countries are administering COVID-19 vaccines, studies are ongoing to assess whether inoculations prevent people from contracting SARS-CoV-2 and spreading the virus. If widely distributed, vaccines that prevent transmission could help to control the novel coronavirus. Preliminary studies suggest that some vaccines likely help block transmission of SARS-CoV-2; however, confirming that effect and determining its strength remains a tricky task. The trickiness is due to the other factors that may explain the decrease in infections in a given area, such as lockdowns or behavior changes. To be frank, it is possible that the vaccines will not prevent or significantly lower the chances of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but they may render individuals less infectious, which will reduce transmission. Measuring viral load – roughly defined as the amount of virus in a person – is a respectable proxy for infectiousness, and it is being studied by researchers in Israel. Scientists are also tracking the close contacts of vaccinated individuals to find out whether those contacts gain any indirect protection against infection.

Executive Summary – The 6th Global Health Security Agenda Ministerial Meeting

The 6th Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting was held in November of 2020. The main objectives of the meeting were to “exchange experiences on disease prevention and control among various sectors and countries, update the progress of action packages implementations, enhance the engagement of multisectoral cooperation, identify gaps in implementation and fill them with through concrete action as well as jointly address means and ways forward to improve the GHSA mechanism and collaboration on the global health concern issue.” The meeting highlighted several issues but also several recommendations. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the world remains ill-prepared to counter pandemic threats, despite several red flags with previous outbreaks. The negative impacts of the pandemic reverberated beyond public health – severe supply shocks, heightened food prices, widespread layoffs, and compromised education. The official report of the meeting emphasizes that security is a global issue that requires global coordination and collaboration across countries, sectors, and organizations. Another major takeaway is that the economy and health are integrated and interdependent. Also, there is a vital need for “mass compliance” with basic public health preventive measures in order to minimize the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.  New policies should be tailored to support health care systems and improve the socioeconomic situation to aid the recovery of the economy. Also, “health is not a cost, but an investment.” Read the final report here.

In case you missed it, Maddie Roty, a Biodefense MS student, attended a Meeting event, “Incorporating One Health into Global Security: Educating the Public and Governments,” which addressed how to educate students about One Health and how to implement One Health initiatives in US government agencies. Read Roty’s takeaways here.

Three Biodefense Grads Set to Lead Global Health Organization

Three 2019 graduates from the Master’s in Biodefense program have been elected to top leadership positions in the Next Generation Global Health Security Network, an international organization of nearly 1,000 early- to mid-stage professionals and students who work on the full spectrum of issues related to global health, ranging from combating antibiotic resistance to preventing the next pandemic. Next Generation Global Health Security Network—NextGen, for short—is an affiliate of the Global Health Security Agenda, a collaboration founded in 2014 by representatives from 44 countries (now 69) and organizations, including the World Health Organization. The new officers are Kate Madison Kerr, who will coordinate the global network; Anthony Falzarano, who will manage the organization’s finances; and Jessica Smrekar, the newly appointed coordinator for the United States. “It is an incredible feat that three Schar School graduates are assuming leadership of an organization this large, and I’m incredibly proud of it,” said Kerr. “[NextGen] truly was my first introduction to anything on a global scale and it allowed me to begin interacting with and learning from global partners,” Smrekar said of her NextGen experience. “As a mentee in the 2018 mentorship program, I was able to create a research project that was accepted to the inaugural Global Health Security Conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2019.”

African Swine Fever: Biosecurity Coordination and Early Detection to Mitigate the Risk

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

The 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, presented by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), brought together experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. Speakers highlighted how the convergence of food, agricultural, and natural resource challenges require coordination and intensification of food safety, nutrition, and food security efforts to mitigate risks.

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Rachel-Paige Casey and Ms. Michelle Grundahl. You can find their discussions of other symposium sessions here. This report provides an overview and commentary on Session I, which dealt with the biosecurity risks associated with African Swine Fever virus (ASFV). Speakers for this session were as follows:

  • Dr. Douglas Gladue, US Department of Agriculture, “African Swine Fever”
  • Dr. Vittorio Guberti, Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, “Feral Pig Population”
  • Dr. David Pyburn, National Pork Board, “Prevention and Preparation for ASF”
  • Dr. Jishu Shi, Kansas State University, “International Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future”
  • Dr. Jack Shere, US Department of Agriculture, “ASF: The US Perspective”
  • Dr. Cassie Jones, Kansas State University, “Biorisks on the Farm: Practices to Prevent Pathogen Transmission to and from Animals”
  • Lindsay Gabbert, Plum Island Animal Disease Center, “Disinfection/Decontamination for Various Surfaces Effective Against ASFV”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, much attention is on zoonotic diseases—infectious diseases caused by a pathogen that has jumped directly from an animal to a human. While zoonotic diseases clearly represent a significant risk, other diseases that do not directly infect humans can still have a substantial impact. For example, though the ASFV is not transmitted from pigs to humans, the virus’s spread has inflicted serious economic pain in multiple outbreaks. However, these consequences can be largely mitigated through prevention and early detection efforts. This report summarizes the speakers’ key takeaways and suggests areas for future research and policy development.  

ASF is a highly contagious, highly lethal disease that is rapidly transmitted among wild boar, warthogs, and domestic pigs. Though the virus cannot be transmitted to humans and does not pose a food safety issue, ASF outbreaks have the potential for devastating economic consequences. For example, as Dr. Shi points out, China lost tens of millions of pigs in the first few months of their most recent outbreak, and the social and economic impact was severe. Dr. Pyburn estimates that an ASF outbreak in the US that took 10 years to control could cause $50 billion dollars in losses and 140,000 job losses. Even in a rosier scenario where the US controlled the outbreak after 2 years, projected losses are $15 billion.

ASF is endemic in Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Its natural hosts there are warthogs and bushpigs, with soft ticks acting as a vector. In the 1950s, outbreaks began occurring in Europe, and later in the Caribbean, likely via contaminated pork products. European countries combatted ASF with a policy of slaughtering infected animals and modernizing farming facilities, and by the 1990s Europe was declared free of ASF. However, in 2007, ASF was identified in the country of Georgia, presumably attributed to the importation of contaminated pork. This outbreak spread quickly to neighboring countries among their wild boar populations, to such an extent that ASF was declared endemic in the Russian Federation. Despite enacting slaughter policies and other measures, ASF has not been eradicated from eastern Europe. Another key event is the 2018 introduction of ASF in China. This outbreak spread rapidly across Asia, with significant economic impacts. For example, China saw a 50% reduction in its swine herd in 2019. ASF has also spread to other European countries, such as Belgium, Poland, and German, in recent years. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) found that as of December 2020, there are ongoing ASF outbreaks in 24 countries: 8 in Europe, 12 in Asia, and 4 in Africa.

There are several key challenges in eradicating ASF. Both wild and domestic porcine animals can spread the virus. The main challenge in addressing an outbreak among wild boar is their uncontrollable movement and the need to quickly remove infected carcasses to stem the spread. In winter temperatures, a carcass can maintain the virus for months or years. Therefore, even though ASF initially spreads in a wave with a high fatality rate (~60%), the infected carcasses as a source of infection can cause ASF cases to persist locally for years. European countries have pursued three different strategies to manage infected wild boar populations: depopulation (90% of the total wild boar population hunted), soft hunting (60% of the post-reproductive population hunted), and fencing of infected populations coupled with a hunting ban. Depopulation was the least successful, while soft hunting led to a slow but still steady spread of disease. However, banning wild boar hunting and erecting a double fence around identified infected populations has been successful in eradicating the virus in the Czech Republic and Belgium, though further research is needed to understand the conditions under which this strategy is and is not effective.

For domestic pigs, the main challenges to ASF eradication are an underreporting of symptomatic animals, the inability of smaller farms to implement adequate biosecurity measures, the contamination of feed, and illegal domestic pig movement. Dr. Jones argues that an often-overlooked weakness in the US is the feed supply chain as a potential pathogen transmission route, involving the ingredient facility, the feed mill, and individual farms. Obviously, contamination at the ingredient facility or feed mill can be spread to many farms, but more attention should be paid to delivery drivers transporting feed from the mill to farms and moving from farm to farm without adequate hygiene measures in between trips. A culture of biosecurity, as well as clear and appropriate information reporting measures, is key to mitigating the many points of entry for infectious diseases to spread rapidly on and from individual farms.

As the saying goes, “You can’t fatten the pig on market day.” To prevent a large-scale, economically devastating outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF), stakeholders must coordinate on robust biosecurity, disease surveillance, and containment measures. Preparation is key; responding to an outbreak after it happens will lead to catastrophe. The symposium speakers had many promising ideas for future research to address current gaps. While the USDA has developed experimental live attenuated ASFV vaccines, more research is needed on protective immune mechanisms; subunit vaccines could also be explored. More development of computational models to understand the spread of ASFV, particularly in wild boars, would be a helpful tool in tracking and eradicating the virus. Focused study of eradication methods and their implications on economies and the environment would point to tailored strategies for an outbreak of a wild or domestic origin. Speakers also discussed ongoing projects to address ASFV, such as an educational initiative with Customs and Border Protection to increase biosecurity awareness as it related to passengers entering the US from foreign ports. The National Pork Board is also developing a tool called AgView, a data dashboard that provides real-time ASFV updates and pig movement data to state health officials, increasing collaboration and information sharing. The combination of industry, government, and academic stakeholders at this symposium reflected the broad portfolio of efforts currently underway to address ASFV.

Applying Biosafety Research to Lower Biorisk in the Laboratory: Building a Culture of Safety

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

The 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, presented by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), brought together experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. Speakers highlighted how the convergence of food, agricultural, and natural resource challenges require coordination and intensification of food safety, nutrition, and food security efforts to mitigate risks.

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Stevie Kiesel and Ms. Rachel-Paige Casey. You can find their discussions of other symposium sessions here. This report provides an overview and commentary on Session II – Applied Biosafety Research: An International Effort.

Session II: “Applied Biosafety Research: An international Effort”

Applied biorisk research is the “systematic, scientific investigation into and study of materials, tools, and practices to provide for the safe handling and containment of infectious microorganisms and hazardous biological substances.” This is a bit more specific than the biorisk management practices that one might be familiar with; this type of research informs the procedures that laboratories should implement. Applied biorisk research is important because it provides assurances to researchers, and the public, that sound practices are in place. This is of domestic and international importance in universities, government laboratories, industry and diagnostic labs (all who might work with unknown risks). This focused research is relevant even to non-traditional labs, such as DIY community science spaces and in global settings that may have low resources.

Overview of 2019 US Workshop: What is Applied Biosafety Research, Who’s Doing It and How Might We Do It Better?

Applied Biosafety Research is not a new field of research. A presentation by Joseph Kozlovac, an Agency Biological Safety Engineer for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the USDA, remined us that there were programs for this in the 1960s. These past programs resulted in guidance such as those published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1976. Mr. Kozlovac states that currently there are no great efforts researching the topics of facility design, personal protective equipment, bioengineering controls, and more. In October 2007, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a congressional hearing: “Germs, Viruses and Secrets” and determined that a task force would consider the ongoing proliferation of biolabs in the United States. Their Trans-Federal Task Force on Optimizing Biosafety and Biocontainment Oversight aimed to ensure oversight of labs involved in handling toxins and infectious agents. A 2009 report suggested the research agenda for this. The Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel provided recommendations in 2014 for biosafety and biosecurity to be improved (there had been a few incidents). The panel specifically suggested a program of applied biosafety research, one that used evidence-based information. Eventually, the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy made these directives clear, emphasized that mitigating lab risks was imperative, and asserted that conducting applied research would provide evidence.

The outcome of a September 2019 “Federal Stakeholders Applied Biosafety Research Workshop” identified five categories with gaps in need of research. One of those gaps in need of further research is the evidence based “hierarchy of controls,” which represents eliminating risks as a top effector. Substituting risks, or engineering to control the risk, is more effective than altering how workers perform, or use protective equipment. Managing the risk of preventing pathogen exposure (and infection) also requires data on the agent, including evidence of the known exposures, morbidity rates, characterization and validation of the pathogens. Potential mitigation strategies require prior information of work-related incidents (such as needle sticks and equipment failures). Identifying the errors that cause incidents in the lab is just a starting point. Another factor to explore are the actual methods used to evaluate hazard mitigation. These efforts aim to identify the appropriate risk assessment methods that should be used. The most interesting research category identified by the Federal Stakeholders Applied Biosafety Research Workshop: where intangible human factors insert into laboratory science. Creating a safety minded culture is not done via protocol. Studying the sociology of laboratory biorisk management makes attempts to tease apart issues such as non-compliance, attitudes, training, and communication.

Dr. Danielle Lohman, Foreign Affairs Officer for US Department of State, provided a review of the stakeholders. There are numerous implementations where applied biorisk research protects workers, agriculture, and the environment. The people who can benefit are funders (government, private), researchers (federal, university and private lab workers), disseminators of knowledge (institutions, journals and organizations), and the end-users (regulators, biosafety professionals).  An excellent example of coordination and collaboration of these applied research activities, Dr. Lohman explained, is the example of COVID-19. We saw rapid international scientific effort to quickly understand an unknown pathogen. The promotion of scientifically sound action is a collaborative effort. The US Department of State is promoting this idea, too. In October 2020, they hosted an invitation only G7 Expert’s meeting on Strengthening Laboratory Biorisk Management to improve the research process internationally.

Applied biorisk research is a critical discipline that can benefit from more professional attention. While some might equate safe laboratory practices with mundane tasks and added duties, others see this field as immensely important in creating standards with great impact. In fact, the Biorisk management standards and their role in BTWC implementation working paper (from the most recent Meetings of Experts of the Biological Weapons Convention) clearly shows the need for greater applied biorisk research.

Department of Defense (DOD) Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Scientific Gaps in Biorisk Research Program (SGBRP)

Dr. Cristine Lawson, Deputy Director for Biosecurity for the Department of Defense (DOD) Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Biorisk program Office (BBPO) and manager of the DOD BSAT Scientific Gaps in Biorisk Research Program (SGBRP), provided an enlightening overview of the program. Apparently, the DOD is very active in BSAT applied biorisk research.  They are contributing to the knowledge base of biorisk practices as applied to Biological Select Agents and Toxins. Some people might recall May 2015 when we learned that the DOD shipped residual live spores of Bacillus anthracis(Anthrax) to 88 sites and that 194 labs received these spores. DOD took this very seriously and they executed comprehensive reviews of their procedures, protocols and accountability. Among the findings revealed was that there was insufficient information to inform and develop  B. anthracis inactivation protocols. The 2016 Government Accountability Office report High Containment Laboratories: Improved Oversight of Dangerous Pathogens Needed to Mitigate Risk2018 report expands upon this. As a result, the DOD has changed its guidelines, created centralized oversight for its BSAT-registered laboratories, and updated its procedures (for more than just their Anthrax research).

The DOD’s creation of the Scientific Gaps in Biorisk Research Program (SGBRP) is intended to fund research in the pursuit of increased scientific knowledge for BSAT procedures. Their review panel assesses the risk of procedures at DOD facilities, and assesses the available scientific evidence that can be used for mitigation. As part of a proactive approach, proposals are solicited. Some proposal categories examples include viability, inactivation, decontamination, environmental sampling, monitoring, and other similar biorisk topics. These proposals are ranked, selected, and then granted funding. One issue in this initiative, Dr. Lawson explained, is the challenge of funding. Funding, of course, is always a concern, but the program focuses on ensuring that senior DOD leadership is aware of the importance of applied biorisk research in order to maintain funding for closing knowledge gaps. It would be ideal for DOD to remain as the lead agency in the efforts to close the gaps of scientific knowledge for BSAT protocols. There is room for improvement here, as noted in the Inspector General’s 2020 report, but most would agree that the DOD has had great success with their BSAT program. Another area Dr. Lawson believes the biorisk community should engage on is encouraging scientists and biorisk experts to engage on policy development. When the federal registrar asks for input, the program encourages feedback from its experts and scientists, and that should be encouraged throughout the entire regulated community. 

Biosafety and Chemical Safety Research

Do you wear your safety goggles every single time you step foot into your laboratory so that you can avoid an accident? Two safety researchers, Dr. Dana Ménard, Assistant Professor of Psychopathology at the University of Windsor, and Dr. John Trant, Assistant Professor of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Windsor, described their research, “A review and critique of academic lab safety research,” regarding academic chemical laboratory safety. It involves more than just posting safety protocols at eye wash stations. Enhancement of research laboratory safety requires collaboration from the entire laboratory community. The true number of laboratory accidents is largely unknown. The data on incidents and deaths in laboratories are sparse, in Canada and in the US. Safety practices and policies tend toward industry in regard to regulations. Academic institutions do not have the same regulatory framework as industry laboratories. A UCLA study (sample size of 2400) reported that 30% of the researchers surveyed had been involved in a laboratory accident. A 2017 study showed that 32% of 261 students had a lab accident. The presenters of this session asserted that the numbers could be higher, as they expect that under-reporting happens frequently. One major concern with surveys like these is that respondents tend answer questions in a way they think is socially acceptable. Social desirability is an issue: we know and report what we should do but we might actually act differently.

Many injuries are likely unreported, for a variety of reasons. Dr. Ménard noted that lab accidents in academia are handled quite different than in industry. Industry workers seem not to keep quiet about accidents and they are usually obligated to report accidents at work. Conversely, academic investigators tend to have low consequences after major incidents in their labs, and student researchers have little-to-no recourse. Dr. Ménard summarized a Canadian study of 104 participants that showed 56.7% were involved in at least one laboratory accident; and around half of those involved (or should have received) medical attention. Around 30% did not report the accident at all. Some of the reasons given for not reporting accidents include “not too serious” and “shame.”    

One gap in our knowledge of this area is the lack of understanding on what training is received by people who work in research labs. Dr. Trant discussed revealed one example where 70% of lab workers received training but only 25% received it before they had started experiments. Even though studies describe interventions, there is often little baseline data for these laboratory interventions, per Dr. Ménard. Some training and intervention efforts that labs can use are self-study programs, quizzes, handouts, black lights and games/scavenger hunts as part of training efforts. Training is necessary but perhaps some of our colleagues complain about losing “academic freedom”, or that there are too many rules and too much regulatory compliance. For some principal investigators (and their competing priorities), safety actions can be seen as a “hassle”. Dr. Trant warns that the lax attitude toward safety is currently normalized in academia and that good leadership is necessary.

Understanding Human Reliability in the Laboratory: Implications for Biosafety

In high consequence laboratory environments, we depend on data to support critical decisions that inform policy. Dr. Rocco Casagrande, Managing Director at Gryphon Scientific, presented his risk assessment for the National Bio and Ago Defense Facility (NBAF). This laboratory is the US’s only large animal BSL-4 facility (and will contain agents such as Foot and Mouth disease). Doing this type of research in the middle of the United States is a new endeavor. The Gryphon Scientific group has also performed a risk-benefit analysis of researching modified agents with pandemic potential (such as influenza and coronavirus). Developing standards at facilities is critical; even more critical is the prior decision making before standards are created. So, why should human behavior be a major part of this research? Containment and facility design is the usual focus, but what people are actually doing in the lab is just as important. A lab can be perfectly built, but we still depend on humans for operation.

Data are needed for this as existing data are lacking. Fatigue, motor skills, and protocol violations play a part in the points of failure in laboratory safety. Dr. Casagrande looked at other industries to inform this data gap. He examined the mistakes that pilots make, and he examined seemingly insignificant events (like dropping vials) to see how much material could escape. As the Gryphon team considered how laboratory accidents happen, they found that the workers themselves are frequently who initiate accidents. The actions of workers can mitigate or exacerbate an incident. Knowing how mistakes happen can help mitigate outcomes like lab acquired infections. These types of mistakes may inform the types of mitigation needed for high consequence laboratories.

The Open Philanthropy Project provided a grant for biosafety research in order to improve high-level decision making for critical science policies. A culture of biosafety is the goal. Since the data do not exist, Casagrande’s team is filling the gap on human reliability.  The goal is to have researchers ready to do this type of research, build a community, publish data, and build a culture of biosafety. These data can be generated by inserting dummy pathogens into the workflow of a lab. How challenging will it be to find data on large animal laboratory workers in high containment laboratories? We can only compare Plum Island (since NBAF is not yet open). Testing ‘real’ work versus an experimental environment might also be useful for low- and middle-income countries who frequently have constrained resources. They are identifying innovative practices. Some labs already have unique practices that might be useful to others, and an upcoming workshop plans to find the barriers for implementation of best practices.

This talk did not broach the subject of human reliability in an expected way. I hoped to hear about identifying potentially malicious actors, discussing dual-use research, and learning about the other risks of opening a BSL facility with many new workers. These topics will be useful to explore; it was not clear if this was already included in Gryphon Scientific’s work.  Brand new laboratories provide a unique opportunity for starting new practices, collecting data on worker training, and conducting applied safety research. This opportunity should not be wasted as NBAF becomes operational.

Challenges and Innovations in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Decontamination During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr. Antony Schwartz, the Director of the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office at Duke University, presented his experience with ensuring a recycled supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) at his institution this past year. Their innovative approach at their biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) lab used vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP) to decontaminate face masks and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs). They validated this method for multiple types of N95 masks. Other methods are possible, too, but some of them are not recommended since fit and filtration degrade after multiple decontamination cycles. Dr. Schwartz suggested that other interested researchers should review this website showing the various methods that have been considered.  Future innovations might result in sustainable PPE. Under development are textiles with filtering materials, reusable N95s, removable filters with a valve that filters in both directions. These decontamination procedures and sustainable innovations may have many applications in healthcare, emergency response, high containment research, law enforcement, and military activities. An important takeaway from this presentation was that gear can now be used more than once. In my opinion, this could have huge implications for training activities. Single use items can be a challenge to incorporate into training regimens. Reusable protective gear could support more frequent and realistic training activities for health care workers and first responders.

Lessons Learned

How do we manage biorisk? We learned what the current research has uncovered in this field, and its application to high containment laboratories as well as academic spaces. Through applied research for biosafety, we can develop robust procedures, we can decrease accidents, and we can even consider sustainable personnel protective equipment. The efforts of these professionals can make laboratory workers safer; and they will build better practices, training, equipment and data. The studies and procedures shared during this conference encourage all professionals, and students, to use (and generate) reliable biosafety data as they continue to build a culture of laboratory safety. A missing topic from this conference was the consideration of biosecurity and dual-use risks, or the potential need for oversight of the growing number of high containment laboratories around the world.

Biosafety Challenges in COVID-19 (So Far)

By Rachel-Paige Casey, Biodefense PhD Student

The 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, presented by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), brought together experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. Speakers highlighted how the convergence of food, agricultural, and natural resource challenges require coordination and intensification of food safety, nutrition, and food security efforts to mitigate risks.

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Stevie Kiesel and Ms. Michelle Grundahl. You can find their discussions of other symposium sessions here. This report provides an overview and commentary on Session III – Emerging Issues, which covered several of the challenges facing the agriculture sector that arose as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Feeding the Nation During a Pandemic – Insights on Challenges and Triumphs from the Food Industry

Dr. Karleigh Bacon from The Kraft Heinz Company provided a summary of the observed trends in the food industry since the start of the pandemic. Overall, retail sales are up as consumers have increased the number of items in their carts and they are stocking up with each grocery run in order to make fewer trips to the store. At the grocery store, consumers are returning to the “center aisles” with packages foods, baking supplies, paper goods, and cleaning products. Indeed, sales of comfort foods are soaring and baking has become an increasingly popular hobby. On the other hand, food service sales are down for restaurants, hotel services, and schools. Online sales have surged to double or triple their pre-pandemic levels. The food industry’s response to COVID-19 aimed to maintain the stability of the food supply chain by focusing on communications management, operations management, and supply chain management. The response from the food industry, much like the health sector, had to be quick and agile, which requires clear communication. The Operational Risk Management team was assembled to conduct daily calls with the manufacturing sector to communicate new policies and operational statuses. Additionally, new lines of communication were established with the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA FSIS for response management. Turning to employee health and safety as a critical component of operations management, personal protective equipment (PPE) became required and health screenings became an automated step before entry into production facilities. Production lines were altered to maintain social distance between workers, moving from a spread of six to twelve feet. Cleaning and sanitizing schedules were ramped up to improve employee health and safety in the workplace. The compliance to health and safety protocols was critically important to maintaining production with healthy employees. To meet surges in demand in the first several months of the pandemic, production facilities ramped up to churn out as much food as possible. The surge in retail food demand fell and foodservice sales enjoyed a small increase during Summer 2020 when pandemic restrictions were relaxed. Thankfully, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through food items. The most significant impact on food supply chains was the concurrent immediate decrease in foodservice production and increase in retail production. Unsurprisingly, factories and plants suffered from PPE and sanitizing solutions shortages, but also from shortages in meat products and packaging components.

Legal Issues—Lessons Learned on COVID-19 Response

R. Brooks Moore, Deputy General Counsel for The Texas A&M University System, discusses legal, compliance, and policy issues that arose as this public education system transitioned to a remote environment and plans to return to in-person learning and work. Prior to the pandemic, the status quo was that instruction, research, and most other forms of work were conducted primarily in-person. Transitioning to remote learning and work created external legal and compliance issues: overlapping and conflicting lines of authority in a prolonged emergency like a pandemic; details and conditions of directives and funding; waivers of statutory and regulatory requirements, and implementing requirements and documenting compliance. With federal, state, and local authorities all vying for authority in an emergency, the system struggled to determine what actions to take. This also caused confusion with lines of funding, which may require compliance with a specific entity. In a state of disaster, the governor has the power to waive laws and regulations temporarily, so the university had to learn how to operate under these new conditions. Documenting compliance was considered a top priority to maintain compliance with the moving targets of requirements as the pandemic changed over time. Of course, the university also faces internal legal and compliance issues: internal decision-making and communications authority; closure decisions; implementation of remote education and work; employment, student, and vendor concerns; and transparency. Perhaps the biggest struggle was determining who has the decision-making authority within the system to choose how to respond to the pandemic. Similarly, it was critical to determine who has the authority to speak for the university in regard to the pandemic and the system’s response decisions. Education transitioned to an online format, but other activities or facilities were unable to go remote, so decisions had to be made on what to leave open and what to close. A common thread through many of these external and internal legal and compliance issues was the confusion around what entities or personnel had authority to make decisions for the response and communicate those decisions across the system.

Biosafety Community Outreach During COVID-19

David Gillum from Arizona State University (ASU) gave an overview of biosafety community outreach during COVID-19. How do we adapt and how will we thrive? In every challenge, there is an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. The COVID-19 pandemic put biosafety front and center of society in 2020. Biosafety was a hot topic in mass media, research, and industry. According to Gillum, disasters provide kinetic energy and foment change, and inspires many to be agents of change for the better of all. Arizona State University experienced changing priorities with the novel coronavirus: managing inventories, reviewing SARS-Co-V research, navigating travel restrictions, adjusting research levels, testing, and vaccinating. “Pivot” is now the word du jour and “building the plane as we fly it” is the favored catchphrase for ASU. Over the last several years, Gillum has helped coordinate a variety of biosecurity outreach on several topics – academic espionage, chemical security, cybersecurity, economic espionage, insider threats, and personnel reliability – with the FBI, the Arizona Biosafety Alliance, and the community. He asserts that the public should be at the table with a voice in the biosafety and biosecurity discussion. Biosafety professions should be the sources of relevant and accurate information for the public.

Lessons Learned So Far

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a number of policy gaps related to biosecurity, especially outside the laboratory. The food industry, higher education, and community outreach came upon unexpected hurdles as a result of the novel coronavirus. Communication and clarity are the common elements needed across many of the challenges created by COVID-19. Knowing what entities – federal, state, and local – have the authority on each topic or issue is critical to a strong response and clear communication of response activities. Clarity on the protocols and chain of command in an emergency is necessary to maximize efficiency and effectiveness of the response. Clear communication also helps ensure compliance with procedures or mandates across the workforce, student body, or community. Though learning how to function in COVID-19 has been a bumpy ride, the trials that came with the pandemic have also provided opportunities to better prepare for the next biological event so that we can adapt and thrive under any conditions.

Pandora Report: 2.19.2021

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, dissects nuclear modernization challenges that the Biden administration will face. The WHO shares mixed messages about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea tried to steal coronavirus vaccine information from Pfizer. Many of the superspreaders behind COVID-19 conspiracy theories are exposed.

Nuclear Modernization Under Competing Pressures

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, and Rebecca Hersman published an analysis, Nuclear Modernization under Competing Pressures, that dissects the decisions and challenges the Biden administration must address regarding the modernization of critical elements of the US nuclear weapons enterprise. According to the authors, the “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and its corresponding W87-1 warhead is one modernization program that will face rigorous scrutiny in the early stages of the Biden administration.” The high-profile and pricey strategic delivery systems get the limelight in the modernization debate; however, the “effective modernization of the US nuclear stockpile itself” is a critically underappreciated challenge. There are a couple important steps that the Biden administration can take to enable successful US nuclear modernization: (1) ensure that modernization timelines are feasible and costs are realistic, and (2) engage Congress and international partners in discussions of nuclear modernization. Read the article here.

WHO: COVID-19 Didn’t Leak From a Lab. Also WHO: Maybe It Did

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a mixed methods social scientist researching biological threats at King’s College London, discusses the conflicting statements made by the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the theories about how SARS-CoV-2 came to be. The joint WHO-China investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic announced that their efforts ruled out the possibility that the novel virus escaped from a laboratory and that it most likely jumped species before infecting humans. A few days later, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that no hypotheses have been ruled out. Lentzos points out the missing pieces of the puzzle in the joint team’s conclusion as well as the inaccuracies in their logic. For instance, the findings assume that all research is published and publicly available, but much of it is not. Indeed, the virus database of the Wuhan Institute of Virology was taken offline at the start of 2020 for “security reasons.” Also, Peter Ben Embarek, co-leader of the mission, commented that laboratory accidents are “extremely rare events.” On the contrary, such accidents are not rare, but accidents that cause documented outbreaks are rare. Lentzos points out that the “publicly-available genetic and epidemiological evidence collected so far about SARS-CoV-2 and the outbreak does not exclude the possibility of a lab leak.” Read Lentzos’ analysis here.

We Need a Global Outbreak Investigation Team—Now

The much-anticipated findings of the team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic proved anticlimactic. In fact, they have also added another layer of confusion given the conflicting statement from the WHO’s director-general that all origin hypotheses remain viable. The team ruled out the possibility of the novel virus stemming from a laboratory leak. The conflicting announcements out of WHO have left many worrying about the many constraints the international body must operate under. For instance, the WHO can “only enter member countries and engage in research there on those countries’ terms, and it has no real powers of enforcement.” Perhaps, something new is needed. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, suggests an international body, similar to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that could “require biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs to report on the activities that go on inside them.” The Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that bans the development of bioweapons, already has a legal structure and could, theoretically, create the enforcement authority for such an agency. Alternatively, Koblentz also suggests, the “UN Security Council could establish such a body, the same way it created commissions to inspect Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction.” Of course, either of these entities would take time to establish and would be based on voluntary participation from states. Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, proposed the World Health Assembly as another option for “mandating investigations that can get boots on the ground the moment reports of an outbreak with pandemic potential emerge.” The proliferation of BSL laboratories in response to COVID-19 “should be reason enough for rethinking the status quo.” More labs mean more gain-of-function research, in which pathogens are modified to study how they might become more dangerous, and would require more lab oversight to ensure safety.

North Korea Tried to Steal Pfizer Coronavirus Vaccine Information, South Says

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported that North Korea attempted to hack into the servers of Pfizer, a US drugmaker, to steal COVID-19 vaccine and treatment information. This report belies dictator Kim Jong Un’s “professed view that his isolated dictatorship is untouched by the pandemic.” It is not clear when the cyberattack on Pfizer occurred or if it was successful. This is just the latest cyberattack carried out by North Korea in its “alleged ongoing campaign to obtain sensitive information through nefarious means and its growing cyber capabilities.” In November, Microsoft revealed that North Korean and Russian hackers tried to steal data from pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers; efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Last year, South Korea announced it had thwarted a hacking attempt by North Korea that targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines.

Weaponized: How Rumors About COVID-19’s Origins Led to a Narrative Arms Race

A joint research project with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and the Associated Press examined the information environments of China, the United States, Russia, and Iran during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inaccuracies that gained traction in those states. The report emphasizes how “varying, unverified, and outright false narratives that the virus was a bioweapon or the result of a lab accident spread globally on social media and beyond, and the geopolitical consequences of those narratives.” As the country that suffered the initial outbreak, China was “central to narratives that [the novel coronavirus] was a bioweapon either developed by or, conversely, targeting the country.” Government officials in the US – including then-President Donald Trump – took a different approach, implying that the virus originated in and escaped a laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and going one step further by postulating that its release from WIV could have been intentional. Some of the preliminary narratives arose in Russia, which were aimed at furthering its own geopolitical agenda and its anti-US sentiments. Given its fraught political situation, Iran’s messaging targeted its domestic audiences and aimed to renew the “Iranian public’s fidelity to the regime.” Read the full report here.

The Superspreaders Behind Top COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

The rapid spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories can be partially attributed to states – China, Iran, Russia, and even the US – touting ideas tailored to their own agendas. But certain individuals have also gained traction with the public: college professors lacking evidence or virology training are plugged as experts and anonymous social media personalities masquerading as high-level intelligence officials. The joint nine-month investigation conducted by the Associated Press and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DRFLab) also aimed to “identify the people and organizations behind some of the most viral misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus.” The explosive claims based on weak evidence were shared with the world by COVID-19 conspiracy theory superspreaders. For example, Francis Boyle, a Harvard-trained law professor at the University of Illinois, asserts that SARS-CoV-2 is a genetically engineered bioweapon that escaped from a high-containment laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Boyle’s evidence is circumstantial: the existence of a BSL-4 laboratory in WIV, the previous virus escape events from other laboratories, and his belief that “governments around the world are engaged in a secret arms race over biological weapons.” Igor Nikulin, who calls himself a biologist and former weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations (UN), claims that the virus was engineered by the US and deployed as an attack in China. Nikulin provides no evidence to support his accusation, nor can his supposed employment history with the UN be verified.

Dr. Saskia Popescu: Hospitals’ First Line of COVID Defense

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, is a go-to consultant for hospitals and the World Health Organization, helping to control infections and prepare for new outbreaks. Popescu also helps educate policymakers and the public using her expertise on the novel coronavirus and the approaches to containing it. She also serves as an infection prevention consultant for larger businesses and the City of Phoenix, Arizona, in their efforts to incorporate COVID-19 safety into the workplace. Popescu has “built COVID-19 response and preparedness programs for hospitals from scratch, and is constantly looking at case counts and analyzing data locally and internationally to ensure she’s providing the most informed recommendations possible.” She explained, “It’s extremely hard to build a robust response and preparedness program and be able to keep it agile, respond to changes in the science and data, and do it in a way that is pragmatic.” Popescu said. George Mason News featured Dr. Popescu on Twitter. Watch the video here.

The CRISPR Revolution and Its Potential Impact on Global Health Security

Kyle E. Watters, Jesse Kirkpatrick, Megan J. Palmer, and Gregory D. Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, published an article in Pathogens and Global Health about the potential impact of the CRISPR revolution on global health security. Global health security is constantly under threat from infectious diseases. Despite advances in biotechnology that have improved diagnosis and treatment of such diseases, delays in detecting outbreaks and the lack of countermeasures for some biological agents continue to pose severe challenges to global health security. In this review, the authors describe some of the challenges facing global health security and how genome editing technologies can help overcome them. They provide specific examples of how the genome-editing tool CRISPR is being used to develop new tools to characterize pathogenic agents, diagnose infectious disease, and develop vaccines and therapeutics to mitigate the effects of an outbreak. The article also discusses some of the challenges associated with genome-editing technologies and the efforts that scientists are undertaking to mitigate them. Overall, CRISPR and genome-editing technologies are poised to have a significant positive influence on global health security over the years to come. Read the article here.  

This new article connects with the two-year multidisciplinary study, Editing Biosecurity, conducted at George Mason University to explore critical biosecurity issues related to CRISPR and related genome editing technologies. The overarching goal of the study was to present policy options and recommendations to key stakeholders, and identify broader trends in the life sciences that may alter the security landscape. Outputs of the Editing Biosecurity project can be found here.  

Pandora Report: 2.12.2021

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Pandora Report! For a safe celebration, the CDC recommends gathering virtually or with the people who live with you. Take a walk outside with your Valentine, enjoy an outdoor picnic, or prepare a special meal or dessert at home. As COVID-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out, the need for equitable distribution has never been more apparent or critical. Alumnus Dr. Daniel Gerstein shares a unique perspective on the role of DHS in economic recovery after the pandemic.

Appreciation and Report for the 6th GHSA Ministerial Meeting 2020

The 6th Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting was held in November of 2020. The main objectives of the meeting were to “exchange experiences on disease prevention and control among various sectors and countries, update the progress of action packages implementations, enhance the engagement of multisectoral cooperation, identify gaps in implementation and fill them with through concrete action as well as jointly address means and ways forward to improve the GHSA mechanism and collaboration on the global health concern issue.” The meeting highlighted several issues but also several recommendations. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the world remains ill-prepared to counter pandemic threats, despite several red flags with previous outbreaks. The negative impacts of the pandemic reverberated beyond public health – severe supply shocks, heightened food prices, widespread layoffs, and compromised education. The meeting report emphasizes that the economy and health are integrated and interdependent. New policies should be tailored to support health care systems and improve the socioeconomic situation to aid the recovery of the economy. Also, “health is not a cost, but an investment.” Given that health security is a global issue, a multi-government approach including all nations is needed. In case you missed it, Maddie Roty, a Biodefense MS student, attended one of the Ministerial Meeting events and shared her takeaways here.

Biodefense Graduate Program Alumni Join NextGen Leadership

Kate Kerr, an alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was elected as the Deputy Coordinator of External Development for Global Health Security Agenda NextGen. As the Deputy Coordinator, she manages the mentorship program. The mentorship program entails pairing new and mid-career professionals with mid and late-career professionals for the purpose of career development and networking. During a nine-month long research program, individuals work with their partner and the rest of the group to perform research that promotes global health security. At the end of the iteration, pairs present their work to the network at large and may use their work to advance their careers. Kerr graduated from the Biodefense program at the Schar School of Policy and Government in 2017, and earned a powerful education while there. During that time, she also served as a graduate researcher at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. She is currently an analyst with Booz Allen Hamilton and now examines the intersection of health and transnational crime. Kerr shares her insights and plans for NextGen:

“The past several years, NextGen has grown aggressively, thanks to the support and outreach of our current Coordinator, Dr. Taylor Winkleman. Not only has participation risen exponentially, but we continue to expand our global participation. As a graduate from the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School, I recognize the importance of global cooperation and will continue to build the solid foundation contributed by past leadership while ensuring that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. Promoting the next generation of scientists is important now more than ever before, especially in light of the challenges this year has exposed. During this election, we have greatly expanded the leadership structure to boost global capacity, and I will continue to build that structure. I am proud to take the helm, and feel the importance of this position now more than ever.”

Additional alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program elected into GHSA NextGen leadership include Anthony Falzarano and Jessica Smrekar.

Equity in Vaccination

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored inequality, with the virus having a tragic and disproportionate adverse effect on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities across the United States. The number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths related to SARS-CoV-2 is considerably higher in these groups. It is critical that the COVID-19 vaccination campaign deliver vaccines fairly and equitably. The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University shares a plan that provides the tools to create, implement, and support a vaccination campaign that “works with BIPOC communities to remedy COVID-19 impacts, prevent even more health burdens, lay the foundation for unbiased healthcare delivery, and enable broader social change and durable community-level opportunities.” The plan comprises five key principles: iteration, involvement, information, investment, and integration. With the same goal, CommuniVax is a coalition dedicated to strengthening the community’s role in an equitable COVID-19 vaccination campaign. CommuniVax relies on efforts from three groups: local teams, a central working group, and national stakeholders. Local teams include resident researchers, grassroots leaders, and public health implementers located in Tuscaloosa, AL; San Diego, CA; Bingham and Power counties, ID; Baltimore, MD; and Prince George’s County, MD. The Central Working Group is comprised of experts in public health, public policy, medical science, anthropology, and public involvement. National stakeholders include groups with political, technical, cultural, and social justice perspectives on vaccine delivery and uptake. Together, these three groups are listening to Black, Indigenous, and Latino/Latinx individuals about how best to promote awareness of, access to, and acceptability of COVID-19 vaccines in their respective communities; and developing longstanding, local governance systems that enable underserved groups to exercise collective agency over their own health and wellness, during this pandemic and going forward.

Outreach 2.0: Emerging Technologies and Effective Outreach Practices

Drawing upon existing best practices, risk assessments, surveys, interviews, and stakeholder feedback, a new report from the Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) aims to empower governments with tools, in the form of good practices, with which to conduct outreach to emerging technology sectors that could be targeted by non-State actors for malicious purposes. Andrea Viski, an adjunct professor at the Schar School who teaches a course on strategic trade controls, and Scott Jones have identified an advanced outreach model, Outreach 2.0, that can be used by countries to enhance compliance with United Nations Security Council resolution 1540. Outreach 2.0 consists of a more customized, targeted, creative, real-time, and collaborative communication strategy between regulators and technology holders that builds trust, support, knowledge-sharing, and inclusion. Read the report here.

8 Tools that Helped Us Tackle the Coronavirus

Over the last year, scientists have worked diligently to understand, diagnose, treat, and prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, and eight technologies were critical to their successes. Adenoviral vectors, derived from the adenoviruses that cause the common cold, are engineered viruses designed to transport a gene from SARS-CoV-2 into the body so that cells will make coronavirus spike proteins. The creation of these spike proteins is intended to teach the body to quickly detect and kill actual SARS-CoV-2. Another example is Johnson & Johnson’s adenoviral vaccine against Ebola virus disease, which was approved in Europe last year. Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) is a powerful gene editing tool that enables impressive precision. This technology is being used to detect SARS-CoV-2. Cryogenic electron microscopy (CRYO-EM) is a technique that enables scientists to observe how biomolecules move and interact by flash-freezing solutions of proteins then bombarding them with electrons to produce microscope images of individual molecules. CRYO-EM has helped researchers visualize over 150 SARS-CoV-2-related structures. Loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) is a method of copying genetic material for diagnostics. This diagnostic technique is a key component of the first at-home product granted emergency use authorization from the FDA. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is the “universal language” in nature, because all living organisms use it as an “intermediary between the DNA code of their genomes and the amino acid sequences that compose proteins.” In December 2020, the FDA authorized the first two mRNA vaccines to fight COVID-19. Rapid monoclonal antibody development has dramatically shortened the timeline for developing antibody drugs. Indeed, two antibody drugs to treat mild cases of SARS-CoV-2 were granted emergency use authorization only nine months after the drugs were discovered. Single-cell genomics is used to “analyze which genes are active or silent under infectious conditions.”  These studies helped several discoveries such as which cells SARS-CoV-2 infects. In 2020, a protein-engineering trick, the 2P mutation, keeps the coronavirus’ spike protein static in form instead of shape-shifting. The 2P mutation is used in COVID-19 vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax.

Landmark Report from Security Experts Identifies Ecological Disruption as the 21st Century’s Most Underappreciated Security Threat

The Council on Strategic Risks released a landmark report, The Security Threat That Binds Us, which “identifies ecological disruption as a major and underappreciated security threat and calls on the United States to reboot its national security architecture and doctrine to better respond to this evolving threat.” The major stresses on our planet include threats to water, food, wildlife, forests, and fisheries, which amplifies the risks of pandemics, conflict, political instability, loss of social cohesion, and economic harm. The report outlines eight pillars of recommended actors by the US: (1) promote international mechanisms that aim to reverse and reduce the drivers of ecological disruption; (2) promote methods that protect and expand critical systems and services; (3) build and strengthen international alliances; (4) treat environmental crimes as serious crimes; (5) reduce pandemic risk at point of origin; (6) amplify ecological and natural security issues in the US government; (7) initiate an ecological and natural security agenda; and (8) engage the public on ecological and natural security issues. Read the report here.

The Essential Role of DHS in the Economic Recovery from COVID-19

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, released an op-ed about the critical role of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the economic recovery from the pandemic. Gerstein emphasizes that DHS can help “set the conditions for a more rapid recovery, reduce the human suffering and stimulate the development of a more resilient and ‘built back better’ US economy.”  Though indirect, DHS can aid economic recovery by exercising its “vital roles in areas such as emergency management, infrastructure protection and law enforcement that promote economic vitality and security.” In regard to infrastructure resilience and mitigating risks from disasters, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) “examined the COVID-19 implications on the 55 national critical functions and sought to minimize the disruption to these functions.” Law enforcement stopped illegal activities related to COVID-19, such as the distribution of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. Read Gerstein’s article here.

Safety and Security Concerns Regarding Transmissible Vaccines

Transmissible viral vaccines, also known as self-disseminating vaccines, are live vaccines with the ability to transmit between hosts. Transmissible vaccines are cost-effective in the immunization of animal reservoirs to prevent zoonotic spillovers. Nuismer and Bull (2020) endorse the development of self-disseminating vaccines, but may not adequately account for the associated safety and biosecurity risks. A correspondence piece in Nature Ecology & Evolution proposes that “efforts focus on the safer and more predictable transferable vaccine approach to achieve cost-effective vaccination of reservoir populations.” Transferable vaccines, for example, can be applied as a paste to the fur of a bat, and other bats will groom the vaccinated bat and be exposed to the vaccine as well. The authors believe that the significant safety and security risks around the advancement of transmissible vaccines outweigh potential benefits. Viral mutations are unpredictable and they may increase pathogenicity or expand the host range. The development of transmissible vaccines bears dual-use potential. Transmissible vaccine development would require heritable approaches that are applicable to infectious, potentially pandemic agents. Also, research would focus on virus traits that might be directly translated to viruses capable of infecting humans.

USAMRIID’s Biodefense Tool

The United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) released a new mobile app! The Biodefense Tool distils key information presented in USAMRIID’s training and education courses on biological threat agents of concern and serves as a quick reference for the identification of these agents in the field. Links to additional resources and contact information for emergency response to a suspected biowarfare or bioterrorism situation are also available through the application. Download it for free here.

‘Major Stones Unturned’: COVID Origin Search Must Continue After WHO Report, Say Scientists

The World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have ruled out the possibility that the novel coronavirus came from a laboratory leak. But the hunt is not over as the team’s time in China did not produce answers to how SARS-CoV-2 started infecting humans. At present, the theory that the virus passed to humans from an animal remains the primary hypothesis. The team offered two other theories, which are supported by the Chinese government and media: (1) the virus came from an animal outside of China and (2) once the virus was circulating in people, it could have spread on frozen wildlife and cold packaged goods. These findings have been met with mixed assessments from researchers. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, said, “there are still major stones that need to be unturned, because any investigation into virus origins won’t be accomplished in two weeks.”

Exhaled Aerosol Increases with COVID-19 Infection, Age, and Obesity

Superspreading events have distinguished the COVID-19 pandemic from the early outbreak of the disease. COVID-19 transmits by droplets generated from surfaces of airway mucus during processes of respiration within hosts infected by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus. A new study in PNAS examined respiratory droplet generation and exhalation in human and nonhuman primate subjects with and without COVID-19 infection to explore whether SARS-CoV-2 infection, and other changes in physiological state, translate into observable evolution of numbers and sizes of exhaled respiratory droplets in healthy and diseased subjects. In an observational cohort study of the exhaled breath particles of 194 healthy human subjects, and in an experimental infection study of eight nonhuman primates infected, by aerosol, with SARS-CoV-2, researchers found that exhaled aerosol particles vary between subjects by three orders of magnitude, with exhaled respiratory droplet number increasing with degree of COVID-19 infection and elevated BMI-years. The study found that 18% of human subjects (35) accounted for 80% of the exhaled bioaerosol of the group (194), reflecting a superspreader distribution of bioaerosol analogous to a classical 20:80 superspreader of infection distribution. These findings suggest that quantitative assessment and control of exhaled aerosol may be critical to slowing the airborne spread of COVID-19 in the absence of an effective and widely disseminated vaccine. Understanding the source and variance of respiratory droplet generation, and controlling it via the stabilization of airway lining mucus surfaces, may lead to effective approaches to reducing COVID-19 infection and transmission.

Event – Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World

In August 2013, a massive sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs shocked the world and confronted the Obama White House with an agonizing choice: Whether to enforce the president’s “red line” threat with a military strike, or gamble on a diplomatic solution that offered the appealing prospect of the complete elimination of Syria’s strategic chemical weapons stockpile. Ultimately a deal was struck, and within days the race was on to extract and destroy hundreds of tons of lethal chemicals stashed in military bunkers across Syria, in the middle of a civil war. In his new book Red Line, journalist and author Joby Warrick draws from new documents and hundreds of interviews to reconstruct the key decision points as well as the unprecedented international effort to remove the weapons under fire and then—when no country was willing to accept Syria’s chemicals—to destroy them at sea. Warrick argues that, despite cheating by Syria—and in spite of the larger failure to end Syria’s mammoth humanitarian crisis—the disarmament mission was an important multilateral success. The historic undertaking deprived Assad of the bulk of his nerve agents and production equipment, and prevented what might have been a catastrophic leakage of deadly nerve agents to Syrian combatants and terrorist groups.

On 26 February at 11 AM EST, the Wilson Center will be hosting a live webinar about the book. Speakers include the author, Joby Warrick, Public Policy Fellow at the National Security Correspondent for The Washington Post; James F. Jeffrey, Chair of the Middle East Program, Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; and Robert S. Litwak, Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center. RSVP here.

Pandora Report: 2.5.2021

A new fact sheet highlights concerns for US economic and national security from the data collection conducted by China. Join the Biodefense Graduate Program next month for a virtual event on Russia, Syria, and the future of the chemical weapons convention. Read Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel’s article about conspiracy theories during pandemics, including COVID-19.

Conspiracies, Contagion, and Convergence: Troubling Trends and COVID-19

For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, disease outbreaks have been accompanied by exaggerated or downright false claims of origin, spread, and treatment. Some of these claims are misinformation—incorrect information spread without an intent to mislead. For example, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, claims that garlic could cure COVID-19 spread across social media. The majority of posters did not appear to have malicious intent in sharing this content, making these claims misinformation. On the other hand, disinformation is deliberately misleading or biased information. Far-right Telegram users planned to weaponize disinformation when they urged followers to spread inaccurate information about COVID-19 safety precautions via flyers in certain neighborhoods. While misinformation and disinformation are both dangerous, disinformation is more insidious. Throughout history, both mis- and dis-information have spread prolifically during pandemics. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a brief history of conspiracy theories during pandemics, discusses some popular COVID-19 conspiracies, and examines a potential convergence of various communities spreading similar conspiracy theories. Read Kiesel’s article here.

Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House: February 11, 2021

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and its academic programs. The online session will provide an overview of the master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. The virtual event will be 11 February at 6:30 PM EST. Register here.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

China & Biotechnology

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center released a fact sheet outlining the risks to privacy and US economic and national security posed by China’s collection of genomic and healthcare data from the US. These data have been collected via legal and illegal means by a country that uses the mass collection of DNA domestically to help it “carry out human rights abuses against domestic minority groups and support state surveillance.” China has already obtained personal identifying information and personal health information on much of the US population. Chinese companies are compelled to share their collected data with the Chinese government, and there is no mechanism for these companies to refuse their government’s requests for data. These personal data provide China with opportunities to “precisely target individuals in foreign governments, private industries, or other sectors for potential surveillance, manipulation, or extortion.” From an economic standpoint, China’s “acquisition of US healthcare data is helping to fuel China’s Artificial Intelligence and precision medicine industries, while the PRC severely restricts US and other foreign access to such data from China, putting America’s roughly $100 billion biotech industry at a disadvantage.” This disadvantage could translate to Chinese biotechnology firms outpacing those of the US, potentially leaving the US more dependent on “Chinese innovation and drug development for its cures, leading to a transfer of wealth, co-opting of new businesses and greater job opportunities in China.” BGI Group, the world’s largest biotech firm based in China, is under suspicion of trying to collect DNA from Americans through its recent offer to assist in COVID-19 testing in the state of Washington. Supervisory Special Agent Edward You, a biochemist turned FBI investigator, highlights the Made in China 2025 national strategy in which the nation expresses its plans to be the “dominant leader in this biological age.”

A US Law Required the White House to Respond to Navalny’s Poisoning. Why Didn’t It?

Six days after the German Chancellor publicly pointed a finger at Russia for attempting to kill Aleksei Navalny with a powerful Soviet-era nerve agent, the top Democrat and top Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a request to Trump, the US president at the time. The letter triggered a required 60-day evaluation period to assess if chemical weapons had been used by Russia against Mr. Navalny, which then spurs a sanctions process. This evaluation is part of the 1991 law informally known as the Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) Act. The 60-day window expired on 8 November 2020 with silence from the US government. Another letter was sent about the evaluation a month later. Speculation as to why the Trump White House stayed mum on the topic ranges from negligence to “interagency bureaucratic wrangling” to the administration’s desire to not upset the Kremlin. Two days after President Biden took office, leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee invoked the evaluation for a third time and accused the Trump administration of violating the law. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of Biodefense Graduate Program, commented on the matter, “The failure of President Trump to impose additional sanctions on Russia for the Navalny poisoning is consistent with the past pattern of the Trump administration refusing to confront Russia on key issues ranging from chemical-weapons use to election interference to cyberattacks.” Biden, however, intends to prioritize arms control and the Navalny Novichok attacks in its policy toward Russia.

COVID Performance Index

The Lowy Institute created a COVID Performance Index that explores how almost 100 countries with publicly available and comparable data on the virus have managed the pandemic to date, following their hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19. The Index sorts countries into broad categories by region, political system, population size, and economic development. Performance was measured using 14-day rolling averages of new daily figures calculated for several indicators: confirmed cases, confirmed deaths, confirmed cases per million people, confirmed deaths per million people, confirmed cases as a proportion of tests, tests per thousand people. Despite being near the initial outbreak site, countries in the Asia–Pacific, on average, proved the most successful at containing the pandemic. On the other hand, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus overwhelmed Europe and then the US. Europe, however, made the greatest improvement over time. The Index also found that “despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time.” In terms of population size, countries with fewer than 10 million people consistently outperformed their larger counterparts throughout 2020. Unsurprisingly, countries with higher per capita incomes were better equipped to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and performed better, on average, than developing countries.

Global Vaccine Timeline Stretches to 2023

The Economic Intelligence Unit released a report revealing that the “road to national inoculation protection against COVID-19 might still be a long one” depending on where you live. Indeed, it may take years for many places to vaccinate a majority of the adult population. The major economies in Latin America are on track to achieve widespread coverage by mid-2022, but the timeline for much of Asia will likely be much longer. Many Asian nations are not expected to reach 60-70% of their adult population until 2023. Japan will start its vaccination campaign in late February and should reach majority immunization by mid-2022, along with South Korea and Vietnam. The US along with most of Europe should reach a majority by the end of 2021.

Strong International Relationships Enabled DTRA to Provide COVID-19 Support to Partners Abroad

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program has tapped into existing partnerships and engagements to “enable partner nations to leverage CTR-provided equipment and training to combat this pandemic wreaking havoc in their countries, including assistance with identifying the first SARS-CoV-2 case outside of China.” CTR works with international and interagency partners to mitigate weapons of mass destruction-related threats to US forces, the US Homeland, US allies, and US interests. Global health security and the mitigation of biological threats are key components of national security. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the “value in ensuring that our foreign partners are adequately trained and equipped to secure biological threats at their source.” CTR’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) has provided training and equipment to over 130 institutions in more than 30 countries to help improve their ability to detect, diagnose, and report biological incidents and outbreaks with pandemic potential. Scientists in Thailand used diagnostic equipment and training provided by to determine the first COVID-19 case outside of China. Georgian scientists trained by CTR at the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Center (constructed by CTR) developed a COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing capability that enabled Georgia to limit the mortality of the virus to five deaths.

How Epidemiology has Shaped the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nature’s third progress report highlights key findings from epidemiology a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread and why. Lockdowns were instituted to quell the virus early by keeping people separated. Mask-wearing also reduces the risk of transmission and infection, a practice that is now largely expected in society as we continue to battle the novel coronavirus and its variants. Though the efficacy of mask-wearing had not yet been tested with controlled trials and direct data prior to the pandemic, by summer 2020, several studies had found that “masks contribute to slowing the spread of coronavirus.” In early 2021, we are facing the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, creating a new questions and challenges for epidemiologists. The pandemic is also reshaping epidemiology, expanding it. Now, epidemiology is increasingly involving physicists, mathematicians, computer and network science experts. The US will establish an interagency National Center for Epidemic Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics. COVID-19 has forced epidemiologists and their models in the policy and media spotlight, so these experts have had to learn how to communicate their analyses and predictions to the whole population. This is especially challenging given the limitations of statistical models and probabilistic estimation, which come with a level of inherent uncertainty but are important tools.

Inequalities in COVID-19 Vaccinations

Black Americans are being administered COVID-19 vaccinations at a significantly lower rate than white Americans, and the gap is not closing as states expand eligibility. In the 23 states with available vaccination data, white residents are being vaccinated at rates double (or higher) than that of Black residents. In Pennsylvania, the black vaccination rate is 0.6% and the white vaccination rate is 2.6%, meaning that white residents are vaccinating at a rate 4.2 times higher. There are similar figures for New Jersey and Mississippi. Several more states are vaccinating white residents at rates double to triple that of black residents. Additionally, on average, the white population is being vaccinated at a rate 2.6 times higher than the Hispanic population. One of Biden’s first executive orders prioritized COVID-19 data collection, and the CDC plans to add race and ethnicity data to its dashboard; however, it is uncertain when these updates will happen.

This is How America Gets Its Vaccines

The Biden administration has pledged to administer 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. To achieve this, the administration will face an uphill battle with the current system that gets vaccines from manufacturer to patient. Tiberius, the vaccine allocation planning system of HHS, and VTrckS, the vaccine ordering portal of the CDC, are the two central systems that sit between vaccine factories and medical clinics. Put simply. Tiberius turns data into usable information and VTrckS is how states order and distribute shots. At step one, manufacturers, like Pfizer or Moderna, produce a vaccine. In COVID-19, the two aforementioned manufactures developed messenger RNA vaccines, a nascent technology that requires very cold temperatures. This type of vaccine had never been produced at scale before, and manufacturers overestimated how quickly doses could be made and distributed, causing the first major hiccup in the rollout. In step two, the US government sets vaccine allocations based on production estimates and inventory numbers. Tiberius takes that allocation number and divvies up vaccines based on Census data; VTrckS operates as the online store that health departments visit to order vaccines. States distribute the vaccine locally in step three after learning how many doses they were allotted through Tiberius. In step four, manufacturers ship out the vaccine; for the COVID vaccines, that means shipping millions of vaccines to 64 jurisdictions in -70 degrees Celsius conditions. Finally, in step five, local clinics administer the vaccine to the population. According to experts, one of the biggest challenges with the campaign under Trump was the decision to leave administration to the states, straining local governments that are understaffed, possess limited technical capabilities, and work with outdated systems. Several experts have emphasized that the federal government must take greater initiative to supply states with better technology options.

Millions Earmarked for Public Health Emergencies Were Used to Pay for Unrelated Projects, Inspector General Says

An investigation into a whistleblower complaint found that federal officials “repeatedly raided a fund earmarked for biomedical research in the years leading up to the covid-19 pandemic, spending millions of dollars on unrelated salaries, administrative expenses and even the cost of removing office furniture.” This investigation was conducted by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and was overseen by the Office of Special Counsel. The search focused on hundreds of millions of dollars in funding earmarked for the development of vaccines, drugs and therapies by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). The inspector general verified some of the claims made by the whistleblower, discovering that staff referred to the agency as the “bank of BARDA” and admitted that R&D dollars were “regularly tapped for unrelated projects.” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote to Biden, “I am deeply concerned about [the] apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic.” Kerner also stated that it is “equally concerning how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade.”

Conspiracies, Contagion, and Convergence: Troubling Trends and COVID-19

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, disease outbreaks have been accompanied by exaggerated or downright false claims of origin, spread, and treatment. Some of these claims are misinformation—incorrect information spread without an intent to mislead. For example, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, claims that garlic could cure COVID-19 spread across social media. The majority of posters did not appear to have malicious intent in sharing this content, making these claims misinformation. On the other hand, disinformation is deliberately misleading or biased information. Far-right Telegram users planned to weaponize disinformation when they urged followers to spread inaccurate information about COVID-19 safety precautions via flyers in certain neighborhoods. While misinformation and disinformation are both dangerous, disinformation is more insidious. Throughout history, both mis- and dis-information have spread prolifically during pandemics. This article provides a brief history of conspiracy theories during pandemics, discusses some popular COVID-19 conspiracies, and examines a potential convergence of various communities spreading similar conspiracy theories.

Fear of disease occupies a special place in the human psyche—an invisible threat that can cause physical deterioration and possibly death. Though science has come a long way in understanding pathogens and the human body, even today “much remains unknown in medicine, creating fertile ground for fear.” While this is certainly true of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, conspiracy theories have accompanied disease outbreaks for millennia. Susceptibility to conspiracism is present in every country and can gain traction at any time, though it is more common around unprecedented events. Disease outbreaks are certainly one example, but the attacks of September 11th and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon industrial accident show that conspiracies often accompany newsworthy events.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 saw its fair share of myths, often aimed at rival countries. For example, the United States and United Kingdom initially linked the outbreak to intentionally adulterated aspirin from Bayer, a German company. These accusations reflected a post-World War I mistrust of Germany. Similarly, a rumor circulated throughout Brazil that the 1918 influenza virus was intentionally spread around the world by German submarines in an act of biological warfare. Though Americans often call this pandemic the Spanish flu, many countries had other regional names for it based on their particular prejudices. Conspiracy theories commonly lay blame on specific groups in an attempt to turn public opinion, even going so far as to claim that an outbreak is the result of biological warfare. For instance, a pernicious rumor in 14th century France claimed that a Muslim prince enlisted help from France’s Jewish population to bribe lepers to contaminate public water sources and kill Christians. A few hundred years later, conspiracy theories around yellow fever eventually led to the genre American Gothic. The father of American Gothic, Charles Brockden Brown, caught the disease himself, and though he recovered, others in his life did not survive it. His writings often used disease as a “conventional vehicle of terror.” His style was also deeply paranoid, including “hidden voices, secret societies…[and] fears of the Illuminati.” These themes, as well as a fearful fascination with the Illuminati, reverberated in American popular culture and religious life as yellow fever continued to spread.

Conspiracies accompany nearly every significant outbreak of disease. Some believed that the SARS outbreak of 2002 was caused by a virus created in a Chinese weapons lab (sound familiar?). During the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak of 2009, rumors circulated that the World Health Organization and pharmaceutical companies conspired to manufacture the outbreak so that they could profit from vaccine distribution (a theme that appears with many outbreaks). And the current outbreak of novel coronavirus is a case study in how the internet and political tensions can exacerbate conspiracism in the United States.

Because SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus, misinformation and disinformation have provided many people with answers where science could not yet do so. The World Health Organization labeled this phenomenon an “infodemic,” where technology and social media are used on a massive scale. While technology provides new mechanisms for keeping people safe and informed, it can also result in an overabundance of information, as well as the proliferation of incorrect and potentially harmful narratives. The pandemic has spawned countless conspiracy theories, but the most widespread can be generally grouped into four buckets:

  • Virus origins and spread. There is a great deal of theories about how the virus came into existence and how it is spread. Members of the Trump administration, as well as the former POTUS himself, have claimed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is responsible for bioengineering SARS-CoV-2. Some adherents of this theory claim the virus was then intentionally released, while others say it escaped the lab accidentally. Another popular theory is that 5G networks are acting as super-spreaders for the virus. This theory has been linked to several acts of vandalism against 5G towers and an increased propensity for violence.
  • Preventative measures. Claims that preventative measures like mask wearing and social distancing are ineffective got a lot of traction on social media and were amplified by the Trump administration’s words and actions. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon: for example, Moldova’s former President was routinely photographed violating social distancing and mask mandates in his country. And in the US as well as Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries, these preventative measures were met with angry protests by those who believe the lockdowns were a pretense for increased government control. And unfortunately, recent studies have proven that belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories reduces willingness to engage in these preventative measures and protect communities.
  • Vaccines. No other preventative measure has spurred quite as many conspiracy theories as the COVID-19 vaccine. The theories range from mundane (the vaccine actually gives you COVID-19) to bizarre (the vaccine will alter your DNA) to absolutely wild (the vaccine contains a microchip that will allow Bill Gates to track your every movement and implement a New World Order). Others are simply concerned about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine because they perceive the approval process as rushed and/or they mistrust the government and pharmaceutical companies. As of December 2020, only 60% of Americans surveyed said they intended to get the vaccine, while 20% said they were fairly certain they would under no circumstances get the vaccine.
  • Treatments. At the start of the pandemic, home remedies for COVID-19 were extremely popular on social media. Other bad information about COVID-19 cures came and went throughout 2020. Some of the most popular “cures” include garlic, saline nasal wash, exposure to high temperatures or sunlight, antibiotics, and hydroxychloroquine. None of these are effective against COVID-19.

Bad actors often encourage and amplify the spread of these narratives, twisting them for their own purposes. Extremists have latched onto many of these conspiracy theories and used them to recruit and radicalize followers. Social distancing, lockdowns, and online school and work have moved many people indoors, online, and looking for answers. When scientists, doctors, and public officials cannot provide the answers people are looking for, they become incredibly susceptible to messengers that claim to have a simple answer.

Conspiracism ebbs and flows, and though it is not a uniquely American phenomenon, we are currently living through a peak in what Richard Hofstadter has called the “paranoid style in American politics.” Understanding all the factors that have led to this crescendo is beyond the scope of this article, but political turmoil, increasing inequality, and a global pandemic play a significant role, exacerbated by the rapid spread of information and a waning trust in institutions. While much of the focus is on the political right, particularly given the recent siege of the Capitol, there is evidence of a convergence of conspiratorial thinking among those on both ends of the political spectrum, as well as those with few political beliefs who find answers in these ways of thinking. COVID-19 misinformation has been rampant on the right as well as within wellness and spirituality communities that are traditionally uninterested in politics or lean left. Liberal and leftist activists have also spread similar misinformation rooted in suspicion of pharmaceutical companies, the “medical industrial complex,” and the government.

The QAnon conspiracy is another recent example of this convergence. Declared a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI in 2019, adherents of the theory have been linked to at least a dozen alleged crimes. This statistic does not take into account any crimes committed during the Capitol siege, but QAnon adherents had a sizeable presence there. While many Q followers approve of Donald Trump because they believe that he has been trying to dismantle the deep state cabal of pedophiles and Satanists that run the US government, QAnon has appealed to people across the political spectrum. Though at its core, the QAnon conspiracy is based on an old antisemitic trope of the Blood Libel, the core belief has been laundered through movements such as #SaveOurChildren (claiming to be fighting child sex trafficking) and by social media influencers that put a gentle exterior on an extreme ideology. Much like multi-level marketing schemes, this rebranding targets potential marks by constructing a façade to hide the ugly reality and consequences. The subreddit QAnonCasualties is full of stories from former Q adherents as well as their friends and family. These stories show how conspiracism can consume someone’s life, leading them down a path to extremism that often ends in ostracism and sometimes even violence against their loved ones. The subreddit also shows the many different communities that can lead to Q, from churches to the wellness community to other conspiracy communities to right-wing politics and in countries outside the US.

Conspiracy theories and extremism will remain a potent threat for years to come, and currently disparate communities may converge in ways predictable or surprising. Conspiratorial thinking is often black and white, an “us versus them” mentality that can erode a person’s aversion to violence. Terrorist groups can (and have) taken advantage of this shift in mindset and used conspiracy theories as an opening to eventually introduce more extreme ideas. The Capitol siege and subsequent crackdown on inflammatory rhetoric on the major social media platforms may be pushing people toward sources such as Gab, Telegram, and Bitchute where extreme ideas flourish. The Biden administration has suggested several actions to combat the threat of domestic extremism, including a threat assessment and capacity-building to disrupt extremist networks. These are positive steps that must include experts outside of government and from a variety of disciplines, including those experienced in successful cult deprogramming and deradicalization. While promoters of and participants in extremist violence should be held fully accountable under the law for their actions, we should not lose sight of the structural and systematic failures that have made these conspiracy theories so appealing today.