Commentary – Agri-Pulse’s Harvesting Perspectives: Agriculture and Food Policy Summit

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

“We never could have imagined how the critical connections between food security and national security would be generating headlines when we first planned this Summit in 2019.”

– Sara Wyant, Agri-Pulse Editor and Founder

This virtual 2020 Ag & Food Policy Summit highlighted the links between food security and national security. We are reminded of Alfred Henry Lewis’s words, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” This might be new information for some, but our intelligence community is well aware. To set the stage here, an issue in agricultural security is the misunderstanding of the term “food security” as food insecurity, and all definitions should include securing the food supply. Food security is national security. Food insecurity – resulting from a pandemic, a contaminated supply chain, an intentional biological attack, or an animal disease outbreak – can lead to national instability. Imagine the horror if an additional food supply problem arose while much of the US was panic buying groceries in March 2020. Sheltering-in-place is only possible if citizens have enough safe food with which to hunker down.

This event consisted of topics in food trade, farming practices, agricultural technology, biosecurity, food contamination, and national stability. Kip Tom, US Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, was the opening presenter. He led by saying that food insecurity can lead to civil unrest. Political conflict in food insecure countries is, unfortunately, very common. When the US intervenes with food aid in other countries, it is for the purpose of creating stability, but it is not simply for altruism. Early on in COVID-19, several industries were forced to shut down, creating food insecurity issues in many nations. Tom reminded the audience about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), which include goals to reduce hunger. He then explained that the European Union’s agroecology plan is an “ideological indulgence” for rich countries since some agroecology practices include manual labor instead of high production machinery. The methods of the EU (using agroecology and highly sustainable practices) are not as highly mechanized or efficient as implemented in the US. These practices could take years to implement, but could lead to local sustainable food supplies. Producing less food (and less efficiently) than the US is what seemed to be condemned here. Perhaps this is just our tendency as Americans to always want “bigger, more, faster.”

Tom suggested that the use of CRISPR, hybrid seeds, and similar technologies are the only path forward and he disparaged the EU for diverging. Helping farmers become more productive through innovation and technology, he insisted again, is the only way forward. Tom called upon the need for political will to uphold the environmental, social, and economic pillars of stability. William “Kip” Ward, a Retired US Army General who served as Commander of the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM), is also concerned about stability. Stability is a key factor for the security of a nation. Creating stability always includes the food system, so unrest due to a lack of food security can lead to leadership instability. He explained that the national security of the US benefits when other nations are fed. 

As politics are certainly involved, Sonny Purdue, the Secretary of Agriculture, asserted the political side of trade and that feeding people requires technology and innovation. His statements seemed to echo Tom’s in that implementing agroecology (as in the EU and Africa) creates a national security risk to the US. Would US influence be diminished if these nations have food trade based on systems that the US is not using? Ted McKinney, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, remarked that having productive agriculture is important. He stated that our “Innovation Agenda” embraces technology, but it is being rejected by some countries and that the EU has “misguided” Africa with their ideas. It was implied that that there will be trade implications if other countries do not grow food at sufficient rate. My takeaway from this was that a slow rate of growth toward stability and sustainability in some countries might be too slow for an impatient US. If countries are growing just what they need, they will need to import less. Right now, the US produces more food than we need, putting us in a good trade position.

The US, and the world, needs the diversity of small and mid-sized farms, as well as major corporations. The current US paradigm of farm monocropping can be seen as a national security risk to some people. Creating huge farms of just one crop is “not natural.” A lack of biodiversity is not congruent with a healthy ecosystem, and McKinney’s opinion is that diverse American farms are an insurance policy. But McKinney also stated that we use less insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides when we use GMO seeds. While this might be technically true, Chef José Andrés, Founder of World Central Kitchen, might disagree.

Andres noted that patented seeds are a risk to the American people. If small farms cannot grow food for their local communities, especially after a major disaster, then they are not truly resilient. Natural seeds should be accessible to small farmers, because patented GMO seeds are costly. Having only patented seeds available causes the control of food production to be in the hands of just a few corporations. Andrés’ example is that the US primarily grows five crops, so we are at risk of an incident (intentional or natural) that compromises our ability to feed the population, let alone trade with the rest of the world. Corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and hay seem to be what the US specializes in. His comments bring to mind the government’s suggested Victory Gardens of 1917 and 1942. During WWI and WWII, US citizens were encouraged to plant food as “war gardens” and “food gardens for defense.” This reduced pressure on the food supply.

Andrés went on to describe the challenges of the food boxes provided by the USDA in response to COVID-19. Andres was dismayed at the long lines and empty food banks. The chef said that when people are in need, they need food and water immediately.  Having US citizens wait in line for food, while some food was being destroyed (milk), was the result of inefficient delivery systems. Andres encouraged creativity, such as accepting SNAP subsidies at local restaurants (using local food), which could alleviate many supply chain issues.

The chef then stated his main concern that “at any moment, we could experience a terror attack on the American food supply.” Mike Conaway, a ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture, had concerns with possible contamination of the food supply, too. He stated that the supply chain worked well during COVID-19 early on. People could get food, even if they had to buy items that they did not prefer or had to wait in long lines to get groceries. We need to maintain a secure supply chain. Conaway said that the US needs to consider our food security interests and rank them at the same level as our military defense interests and spending.

In the panel “Is the US food supply really secure? A closer look at the biggest challenges in agriculture biosecurity at home and abroad,” Everett Hoekstra, President of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, reminded the audience that animal health and human health are intertwined, especially regarding the protein supply on which humans depend. Dr. Liz Wagstrom, the Chief Veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council, reflected on biosecurity gaps. These gaps are on farms as well as at international borders and places in between. Considering that some diseases can cause severe economic and trade impacts, farms need to be ready for diseases like African Swine Fever. Another panelist, Dr. Alan Rudolph, Vice President for Research at Colorado State University, suggested using biosurveillance systems and a One Health approach to ecosystem science. We need One Health solutions for resiliency to future outbreaks as we rebuild our infrastructure after COVID-19.

Securing America’s farms and food systems will pave the way to viable strategies for food production beyond today’s systems. Defending the food supply will include supporting international systems. The world’s projected population growth will impact land use as people cause changes in land that affect whole ecosystems. Food security also includes supporting indigenous people’s right to eat and regulating the illegal wildlife trade. Considering the root causes of certain novel emerging infectious disease can inform improvements for the American food system.  For now, the focus should be on designing secure systems, ones that consider how even the smallest livestock – honeybees – supports an increasing population’s demand for protein.  In the biodefense of food, a wholistic bipartisan policy is needed if we want to sustain a stable world where we collaborate with nature and science. And where we can always have enough to eat.



Pandora Report: 10.2.2020

Happy Spooktober! To kick off the month of fright, we are covering anti-science extremism, current threats to our homeland, and human exposure incidents to pathogens and toxins among our neighbors to the north. Also, this week we are featuring a new student writer, Sally Huang! Sally is a new student in our Biodefense PhD Program with a background in biomedical science and science policy and her scholarly interests include CBRN/WMD, global health, and biosurveillance.

BREAKING: President Donald Trump & First Lady Melania Trump Test Positive for COVID-19

Hours after proclaiming that “the end of the pandemic is in sight,” this morning, POTUS took to Twitter to reveal that he and FLOTUS have both tested positive for COVID-19. Both will quarantine in the White House for unspecified period of time.

Commentary – Event: Building Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience to Confront Future Pandemics

Sally Huang, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights from the Building Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience to Confront Future Pandemics event, a virtual meeting hosted by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. The meeting brought together members of the legislative and scientific community for a virtual discussion on the need to increase and optimize resource investments to promote changes in US policy and strengthen national pandemic preparedness and response. Even as the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the various panelists unanimously acknowledged that the world will most likely face future pandemics. After having adapted to telework, decision-makers are determined to enhance and enact new policies and guidelines to better position the nation to effectively respond to future infectious disease threats. Areas requiring the nation’s attention were addressed in three separate panel discussions; emerging biological threats and innovative technology for biodefense, emerging biological risks, and the future of biodefense. Read Huang’s article here.

Commentary – Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center: Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office by DeeDee

DeeDee Bowers. A Biodefense MS student, summarizes a webinar about the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD). The DHS CWMD Office was created to coordinate federal efforts to plan, detect, and protect against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. DHS CWMD was founded on the motto “100% focus, 0% margin of error.” Colonel Aeschleman pointed out that our enemies only have to be right once to have a devastating effect while CWMD protective measures must be constantly effective. It is with this mindset that the DHS CWMD Office set up a list of goals to achieve in Fiscal Years 2020-2024. Read Bowers’ summary here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” There are also several opportunities to attend Admissions Drop-In Sessions for both the Master’s programs and the PhD programs. To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

2019 Annual Report of the Federal Select Agent Program

The 2019 Annual Report of the Federal Select Agent Program, the fifth report of its kind, was just released to “provide the American public with insight into the regulatory activities of the program.” The Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) is a program that regulates the possession, use, and transfer of biological select agents and toxins and it is jointly managed by the Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agriculture Select Agent Services (AgSAS) under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Agriculture Select Agent Services (APHIS) at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The report précises program data regarding the numbers and types of registered entities; performed security risk assessments; the number of conducted inspections; key observations about inspection findings and regulatory compliance; reports thefts, losses, or release incidents; and publications and outreach activities. Read the full report here.

Anti-Science Extremism in America: Escalating and Globalizing

A new pre-proof editorial published in Microbes and Infection by Dr. Peter Hotez, an internationally-recognized physician-scientist in neglected tropical diseases and vaccine development, discusses the growing trend of anti-science extremism in the US. Over the last five years, there has been a steep rise in anti-science rhetoric within the US, especially from the political far right. Most of it focuses on vaccines and, of late, anti-COVID-19 prevention approaches. Vaccine coverage has declined in much of the country, which spurred an uptick in measles outbreaks in 2019. In COVID-19, the US-based anti-science movement has begun to globalize, establishing surprising associations with extremist groups and creating the potential for catastrophic consequences to global public health. A new anti-science triumvirate has developed that consists of far-right groups in the US and Germany, and amplification from Russian media.

Hold Russia Accountable for Latest Chemical Weapons Attack

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Andrea Stricker, a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, support the call for Russia to be held accountable for violating human rights and the rule of law. This is in response to the Novichok poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist. Navalny himself is demanding that the Russian government turn over the clothing he was wearing the day he was poisoned, which are key articles of evidence. Koblentz and Stricker emphasize that Washington and its allies should impose meaningful sanctions on Moscow in order to uphold long-standing international norms and laws against the use of chemical weapons.

FBI: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), issued a Statement Before the House Homeland Security Committee about the current worldwide threats to the US. As a result of the opportunities presented to hostile foreign actors, violent extremists, and opportunistic criminal elements in COVID-19, the FBI workforce now faces unique and unprecedented challenges. Threats include the spread of terrorist ideology via social media, cyber intrusions and state-sponsored economic espionage, malign foreign influence and interference, active shooters and other violent criminals, opioid trafficking and abuse, hate crimes, human trafficking, and crimes against children. These threats are challenging efforts in counterterrorism, election security, lawful access, information and intellectual property, and cybersecurity.

The Human Cost of the Trump Pandemic Response? More Than 100,000 Unnecessary Deaths.

Since World War II, no American president has shown greater disdain for science—or more lack of awareness of its likely costs.” That statement was written in a 2018 article, long before the thousands of American lives lost and the millions of livelihoods destroyed as a result of COVID-19 and the botched pandemic response. Now, there have been over 205,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US, total federal outlays exceed $3 trillion, and over 14 million people are out of work. Nations such as Canada, Japan, and Germany have suffered far lower death rates thanks to their response decisions and actions.  Though the US accounts for only 4% of the global population, it leads the globe in confirmed COVID-19 cases and has suffered 21% of the total deaths in the world.

New Document Reveals Scope and Structure of Operation Warp Speed and Underscores Vast Military Involvement

Operation Warp Speed (OWS) is a $10 billion initiative established to accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. OWS is touted as a public health-focused endeavor, yet transparency about it is lacking. STAT obtained an organization chart that reveals OWS to be a “highly structured organization in which military personnel vastly outnumber civilian scientists.” According to the chart, about 60 military officials are part of the leadership of OWS, and many have never worked in health care or vaccine development. Additionally, the chart reveals which agencies are not key components of OWS leadership – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) seem to be at the helm.

OPCAST Ad-Hoc Pandemic Response Group

OPCAST is a subgroup of former members of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Members include John P. Holdren, Christine Cassel, Christopher Chyba, Susan L. Graham, Eric S. Lander, Richard C. Levin, Ed Penhoet, William Press, Maxine Savitz, and Harold Varmus. OPCAST provides reports and recommendations regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Recent outputs include Recommendations for the National Strategic Pandemic-Response Stockpile, Epidemiological Modeling Needs New, Coherent, Federal Support for the Post-COVID-19 Era, and Testing for the Pathogen During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Future Ones.

Surveillance of Laboratory Exposures to Human Pathogens and Toxins, Canada 2019

In Canada, the Human Pathogens Act and the Human Pathogens and Toxins Regulations mandates laboratory incident reporting to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Laboratory Incident Notification Canada (LINC) surveillance system. This analysis objective describes laboratory incidents involving exposures that occurred in Canada during 2019 and individuals affected in these incidents. In 2019, there were 60 reported exposure incidents involving 86 individuals. Most exposure incidents involved microbiology activities (65%) and/or were reported by the academic sector (37%); the public health sector had the largest proportion of exposure incidents while the private sector had the lowest. In regard to those exposed, over one-third of had 0–5 years of laboratory experience and were hospital technicians or technologists. Inhalation was the most common route of exposure (62%) and human interaction (24%) was the most cited cause. This article highlights the importance of biosafety and biosecurity in laboratory settings in order to prevent accidents that could harm workers and enter into the general population.

Keep Your Mask On: Why a Coronavirus Vaccine Won’t Be the Panacea Many Hope For.

The development and dissemination of a COVID-19 vaccine has become the savior that society is relying on in order to return to some semblance of normal life. Though vaccines save lives from infectious diseases and have, in some cases, resulted in eradication of an infection such as smallpox, it cannot be our only defense against the novel coronavirus. A vaccine requires great expense and usually takes several years to become widely available. Even when the COVID-19 vaccine comes to fruition, many will either be unable to take it or struggle to access it. Thus, we need to continue to practice low-tech prevention measures like wearing a mask. In the words of Robert Redfield, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “If I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will.”

Commentary – Event: Building Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience to Confront Future Pandemics

By Sally Huang, Biodefense PhD Student

With the current COVID-19 pandemic revealing major gaps in national readiness, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense brought together members of the legislative and scientific community for a virtual discussion on the need to increase and optimize resource investments to promote changes in US policy and strengthen national pandemic preparedness and response. Even as the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the various panelists unanimously acknowledged that the world will most likely face future pandemics. After having adapted to telework, decisionmakers are determined to enhance and enact new policies and guidelines to better position the nation to effectively respond to future infectious disease threats. Areas requiring the nation’s attention were addressed in three separate panel discussions; emerging biological threats and innovative technology for biodefense, emerging biological risks, and the future of biodefense. The recording of the virtual discussion held by the Commission, “The Biological Event Horizon: No Return or Total Resilience,” can be found here.

Representatives Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) discussed the responsibility the US has to its people to take advantage of lessons learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic to integrate into pandemic preparedness and response policies. After all, as much as governments monitor indicators of possible biological attack, there is no set method to predict or foretell events of Mother Nature, “the world’s worst bioterrorist” and how it may further increase infectious disease threats. The US, operating from a privileged position as a world power, had a heightened belief of preparedness partly brought on by availability of advanced biotechnologies, but quickly realized the scope of their unpreparedness as private and public sectors were overwhelmed. The shock that resulted from COVID-19 demonstrates that the government not only has to invest meaningfully in CBRN programs, but also speaks to the need to translate scientific research into solutions in order to be well-equipped. For example, expanding and improving management of the Strategic National Stockpile and establishing a national forecasting system of infectious diseases analogous to the National Weather Service. This also includes revamping trainings and imparting institutions with flexible working styles in recognition that teleworking and digital platforms are transforming the working landscape. This is much needed for government institutions as COVID-19 caused a significant interruption in government operations and its ability to provide services to the people. More importantly, with the November election approaching, the nation requires clear leadership from the White House during this critical time to steer pandemic and biodefense progress in the right direction.

These policy additions and enhancements are also backed by advice given by experts, including Jaime Yassif, PhD, Sohini Ramachandran, PhD, and Nita Madhav, MSPH, about emerging biological risks. There is an evident need to close the gap between science and policy to enrich pandemic preparedness and foster a culture of cooperation, coordination, and resilience. As the panelists mention, numbers of infectious diseases will increase over time, meaning that complex contagion will inevitably become a reality the US and international community have to battle with. Thus, this further highlights the urgent need to fund interdisciplinary research to enhance analytical tools for infectious disease modeling and sheds light on the national forecasting suggestion brought up by the first set of panelists to better coordinate infectious disease analytics and information more efficiently. Proactive preparedness will help ensure proactive and effective reaction.

That being said, all the more reason to pay attention and invest strategically in the future of biodefense. Private and public sectors need to be effectively incorporated into a national strategy in order to improve foundational capabilities and compensate for the noticeable gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes enhancing and providing support to the supply chain, a critical building block for addressing America’s material needs. Additionally, analytic and scientific models should account for modern globalization trends and climate change effects to heighten awareness and response. The recent wildfires spreading across California, Oregon, and Washington serve as an example where unpredictable events have the potential to set up ideal conditions for further disease transmission. Not to mention, natural events cause ecological shifts that also contribute to a changed infectious disease landscape. Decisionmakers have no doubt that this feat will require a strong united front to address these concerns.

The recommendations raised during this virtual discussion led to congressional members underscoring the significance of the Apollo Project for Biodefense. Noted as a vital step to building the nation’s resilience, this initiative will examine the nation’s track record of dealing with infectious diseases, and assess how to better invest and coordinate science and technology efforts and innovation. Extending the ambitions, values, and characteristics of the original Apollo mission,—with the goal of landing the first humans on the moon, to the current COVID-19 pandemic—the legislative and scientific community are hopeful that the bipartisan Apollo Project for Biodefense will champion public and private sector partnership, and galvanize public support to achieve prevention and mitigation of infectious disease threats. Legislative and scientific communities are optimistic that this initiative will push the country in the right direction to better understand, prepare for, and anticipate future pandemics.

This three-paneled virtual discussion echoes the notion that positive policy change in the realm of infectious diseases is a dynamic and all-inclusive process in which various sectors have to participate and cooperate, and integrate expert advice with legislative detail to properly enact long-term change. Even from a virtual distance, it is clear that members of the legislative and scientific community are ready to take collaborative action to ensure that the world doesn’t come to another standstill in the face of future pandemics. As the country continues to struggle and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the right policies governed by suitable leadership will determine a nation’s future plan, response, and resilience towards infectious diseases. While the Apollo Project for Biodefense emphasizes a united and hopeful front, the panelists are aware that a great deal of coordination is still required before strategies can be translated into action. There will have to be steadfast commitment from various sectors and stakeholders in order to foster preparedness, resilience, and response during this opportune window of time.

Commentary – Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center: Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

By DeeDee Bowers, Biodefense MS Student

The Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center (HDIAC) hosted a webinar presented by Colonel Jeremiah Aeschleman, US Army, on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD). President Trump signed into law the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 2018 giving rise to the DHS CWMD office. The DHS CWMD Office was created to coordinate federal efforts to plan, detect, and protect against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. DHS CWMD was founded on the motto “100% focus, 0% margin of error.” As Colonel Aeschleman pointed out, our enemies only have to be right once to have a devastating effect while CWMD protective measures must be constantly effective. It is with this mindset that the DHS CWMD Office set up a list of goals to achieve in Fiscal Years 2020-2024, including other entities such as WMD risk assessment offices and projects like Securing the Cities with which they collaborate. The following are some of the goals set by DHS CWMD.

The first goal is to “anticipate, identify, and access current and emerging WMD threats.” This goal is focused on the collection of intelligence from partners such as the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), the Radiation and Nuclear Terrorism Risk Assessment (RNTRA), the Biological Terrorism Risk Assessment (BTRA), and the Chemical Terrorism Risk Assessment (CTRA). The work done with the intelligence community is ad hoc.

The second goal for DHS CWMD presented by Colonel Aeschleman is to “strengthen detection and disruption of CBRN threats to the homeland.” This goal will be achieved in partnership with programs such as Securing the Cities (STC), BioWatch, Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), Mobile Detection Deployment Program (MDDP), and the National Targeting Center (NTC). These partnerships extend to state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments. SLTT partnerships help with operations such as large-scale radiological detection that directly communicate with local law enforcement for immediate notification and response in the affected areas. SLTT partnerships also allow for the CWMD Office to have a greater effect while still abiding by the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA). US Northern Command defines PCA as prohibiting the armed forces “from performing domestic law enforcement activities [such as] direct participation in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.” By working with SLTT governments, the federal government trains personnel and provides equipment for the SLTT entities to monitor threats. The DHS CWMD office provides MX908 devices to law enforcement agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The MX908 is a durable and portable high-pressure mass spectrometer for agencies such as CBP to use in the field to detect dangerous and life-threatening chemicals (e.g. Fentanyl). Lastly, the partnership with NTC provides information concerning ongoing behaviors using special algorithms. These algorithms determine baseline behaviors, human or otherwise, in order to monitor the environment and situational climates in order to recognize when an abnormal event is underway. When an abnormal event occurs, the appropriate entity or personnel is notified to respond.

The last goal of DHS CWMD highlighted by Colonel Aeschleman was to “synchronize homeland counter-WMD and health-security planning and execution.” This goal includes the partnerships with the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA). The GNDA is designed as a deterrent to let enemies know the United States’ borders possess radiation monitoring and, if caught with prohibited radiological devices, there will be consequences. With the aforementioned goals followed by the DHS CWMD Office, they have had major accomplishments in 2020.

Despite being a new DHS office, in 2020, they have implemented enhanced screening at 15 airports for COVID-19 as well as worked with NBIC on early assessments of COVID-19. Programs such as the STC expanded to six new cities bringing the total up to 13 major cities with new technologies for CBRN detection. In the future, they intend on holding an exercise to place all mission essential tasks in good standing with quality control standards. Lastly, DHS CWMD has published its Countering Unmanned Systems Armed with WMD (CUS-WMD) Strategy. The publication is a framework to detect and strategize prevention of hostile actors possessing agricultural drones armed with CBRN weapons for easy dissemination. While the DHS CWMD office appears to place their talents in counterterrorism, they realize these may not be the only threats. Counterterrorism is threaded within the fabric of CWMD; however, they also focus on terrorist-styled attacks and nation state threats to protect the American people.

Pandora Report: 9.25.2020

Happy fall y’all! The first days of autumn have been eventful with the ongoing pandemic and the interception of ricin-laced letters. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response virtually met for the first time and laid out their plans for investigating how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic. Letters laced with ricin were intercepted in Texas and before reaching the White House, and a suspect has been charged. In wonderful news, our own Dr. Saskia Popescu was named as one of the 50 experts to trust and follow in a pandemic! Also, Stevie Kiesel shares her assessment of the Secret Service’s annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

Stevie Kiesel, a PhD Student in Biodefense, shares her assessment of the US Secret Service annual reporting on mass attacks in public spaces. Just last year, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. These annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Schar School Job Talk: Careers in Policy and Security

Please join the Schar School at a virtual job talk for prospective students! Panelists will provide insight on how a graduate degree from the Schar School can benefit your career in policy and security. Panelists include Dr. Saskia Popescu, 2019 graduate of the Schar School’s PhD in Biodefense program, a nationally recognized expert in hospital-based infection prevention, and a Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School; Kathleen Lackey, Staff Officer with the Department of Defense and a 2018 graduate of the Schar School’s MA in International Security; Larry Hanauer, Vice President for Policy at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA); and Curt Goucher, Senior Manager of Talent Management and Strategy with the Intelligence and Homeland Security Division of General Dynamics Information Technology. Click here to register.

Scientists Are Working on Vaccines That Spread Like a Disease. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A growing subset of scientists think that the self-propagating properties of a virus could be exploited and used to spread immunity to infection. In theory, conferring immunity through an animal population could lower the chance of a zoonotic spillover; however, there are serious risks related to self-spreading vaccines. Self-spreading vaccines are “genetically engineered viruses designed to move through populations in the same way as infectious diseases, but rather than causing disease, they confer protection.” Dr. Fillipa Lentzos and Dr. Guy Reeves outline some of these risks in their recent article featured in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The primary security concern is the dual-use potential; these self-spreading vaccines could be used as a biological weapon. Though the Biological Weapons Convention bans biological weapons, it lacks any formal measures to ensure compliance. Given the degradation of the norm against chemical weapons, as evidenced by the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny with Novichok, the international community cannot withstand a similar weakening of the norm against biological weapons. The authors encourage “early, open, good-faith conversations about scientific aims and advances that cause particular dual-use concerns” in order to “make a collective decision about the technical pathways we are willing, or not willing, to take as a society.”

Ricin Letters

It was revealed last week that letters containing ricin, a poison found naturally in castor beans, were intercepted. One such letter was bound for Trump, but intercepted at an off-site mail processing facility, and others were sent to a detention facility and sheriff’s office in Texas. Mail address to the White House and other federal agencies in the DC area are irradiated and sampled for suspicious samples prior to arriving at the final destination.  The Joint Terrorism Task Force in DC is the lead on the investigation in partnership with the FBI, Secret Service, and Postal Inspection Service. An FBI statement on Twitter announced that there is “no known threat to public safety.” The investigation into all the ricin-laced letters has led to a suspect: Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier, 53, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. An affidavit in support of criminal complaint was submitted by Jonathon Preston, a Special Agent Bomb Technician with the FBI, states his support of charging Ferrier with Threatening the President of the United States. According to Preston, all seven letters contained similar language, similar material, and four of them had fingerprints matching the suspect. Ferrier also shared Twitter and Facebook posts that used language akin to that in the letters, and the email associated with those social media accounts was linked to her. Further, upon detainment by Customs and Border Patrol Officers in Buffalo on 20 September, Ferrier made statements that she was “wanted by the FBI for the ricin letters.” Ferrier’s detention hearing is scheduled for 28 September.

The Independent Panel Set to Establish the Facts of How and Why COVID-19 Became a Global Pandemic

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response is tasked with providing an evidence-based path for the future to effectively address health threats. The Independent Panel intends to establish the facts of how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic and to generate recommendations for “safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats.” The Independent Panel held its first meeting (virtually) on 17 September and it will conduct an impartial, independent and comprehensive review of the response to COVID-19. In the first meeting, members discussed the Terms of Reference to ensure that the Panel works “openly and transparently” and seeks the “best possible advice, experience, and knowledge.” The thematic areas for the program of work include the review of the pandemic from its initial phase and the analysis of broader societal and economic impacts. Scheduled reporting includes a briefing to the WHO Executive Board at its session scheduled 5-6 October, a progress report to the resumed 73rd World Health Assembly scheduled from 9-14 November, a second progress report to the WHO Executive Board scheduled from 18-26 January 2021, and then the Panel will then report to the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021.

Healthcare Workers Make Up 1 in 7 Reported Coronavirus Infections Globally

One in seven COVID-19 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a healthcare worker. In some countries, that proportion is as high as one in three. These numbers are disproportionately high compared with the numbers of healthcare workers, which account for about 3% of the population in most countries. Two factors contributing to these elevated rates are the greater rates of testing for healthcare workers as frontline responders in a pandemic and the high-risk nature of working in healthcare. A study published this summer found that the risk of infection for healthcare workers was about three times greater than the risk for the general community. The WHO did clarify that the data did not provide clear insight into whether healthcare workers were infected in clinical settings or at home.

50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic

A list of the 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic includes Dr. Saskia Popescu, graduate of the Biodefense PhD Program and Term Assistant Professor for the Program! Dr. Popescu is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and Biostats. She is an epidemiologist and hospital infection preventionist in Arizona, a hotspot for the virus. To keep up with Dr. Popescu’s insights on the pandemic, follow her on Twitter @SaskiaPopescu.    

COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted Actions

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congressional Committees regarding federal actions to support public health, individuals, and the economy in COVID-19 evaluates federal actions to the pandemic. The report identified several issues in need of attention by Congress and the administration, including: the medical supply chain is unable to prevent shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies; there is a lack of clarity about the federal government’s plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine; COVID-19 data reveal that there is a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among minority groups and those data contain gaps; and the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service lack updated information on the number of eligible recipients who have not received an economic impact payment. Beyond the long list of areas in need of improvement, the report lays out 16 recommendations for executive action, such as better developing and communicating plans that outline the specific actions that the federal government intends to take to help alleviate medical supply gaps necessary to respond to the remainder of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

In Response: Yan et al Preprint

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published a response to the preprint report, Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route, by Li-Meng Yan, Shu Kang, Jie Guan, and Shanchang Hu. The report in question provides a theory about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, but, according to the Center for Health Security, the authors failed to provide accurate or supportive evidence to back up their claim. In short, the refuted report, which is not peer-reviewed, states that “SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus” and that “evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 should be a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.” The Center for Health Security response thoroughly details the errors in the report and provides accurate information about each topic.

Lists of Chemical Warfare Agents and Precursors: Structural Annotation and Chemical Fingerprint Analysis

A recent publication by Stefano Costanzi, Charlotte Slavick, Brent Hutchinson, Gregory Koblentz (GMU Biodefense Program Director), and Richard Cupitt (GMU Adjunct Professor) provides “curated and structurally annotated chemical weapons (CW) control lists from three key international nonproliferation frameworks: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Australia Group (AG), and the Wassenaar Arrangement.” These lists were constructed to facilitate communication between scientific advisors and policymakers in chemical weapons nonproliferation. They are also aimed at enabling the work of chemists and cheminformaticians working on CW nonproliferation. The tables include 2D structural images, downloadable 2D structures, and links to NCBI’s PubChem and NIST’s Chemistry WebBook cards that offer quick access to physicochemical, analytical chemistry, and toxicological information. The article examines a discrepancy in a CW control list covering the defoliant Agent Orange and suggests a solution to address it, as well as the results of chemical fingerprinting analyses. The tables for the curated lists of chemicals are available here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

Locations of Mass Attacks in Public Spaces in the United States, 2019

In 2019, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed 200,000 Americans, this death toll may seem to pale in comparison. However, much like with COVID-19, fairly simple measures could have a significant effect on the death toll. This article reviews recent US Secret Service assessments of mass casualty attacks in public spaces, discusses recommended measures to prevent some attacks, and suggests improvements for future reports.

Since 2017, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center published an annual report on mass attacks carried out in public or semi-public spaces (2017 report, 2018 report, 2019 report). The Secret Service defines a mass attack as an incident “in which three or more persons, not including the perpetrator, were harmed during a targeted attack in a public or semi-public space.” 2017 saw the highest numbers of deaths and injuries from 28 total mass attacks (147 deaths and 700 injuries). The October 1 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival drew these numbers sharply upward – in that incident alone, 58 were killed and 546 were injured. Additionally, two shooting incidents and two vehicle-ramming incidents in that year caused higher casualties than average for these types of attacks. In contrast, 2018 saw 27 mass attacks with 91 deaths and 107 injuries, and 2018 saw 34 mass attacks with 108 deaths and 178 injuries. In both of these years, the incidents with the highest numbers of casualties involved mass shootings. Figure 1 below shows weapons types used by year.

Figure 1: Breakdown of Weapons Types for 2017, 2018, and 2019

These reports identify important similarities among the attackers, as well as potential indicators that an attack may have been forthcoming. For example, each report highlights how these attacks were very often preceded by a significant stressful event in the attacker’s life, such as divorce, death in the family, unemployment, and/or financial hardship. Additionally, many attackers struggled with substance abuse and/or mental health conditions. Each report found that a majority of attackers elicited concern from others in their life, to the extent that these people felt concerned for their own or others’ safety. Many attackers also had some sort of criminal record; a history of domestic violence was fairly common.

This personalized analysis of the attackers leads to several actionable conclusions to potentially reduce the occurrence of and casualties associated with mass attacks in public spaces. The latest report offers five recommendations:

  1. Establish threat assessment programs for commonly targeted areas, such as schools and workplaces
  2. Enforce existing firearms laws – the majority of mass attacks in the US are carried out with illegally owned firearms
  3. Provide crisis intervention, drug treatment, and mental health treatment
  4. Recognize the risk of crime and violence, based on criminal histories (particularly violent criminal histories)
  5. Encourage reporting of concerning behavior

While these recommendations would likely have some impact, many focus entirely on the individual’s personal situation (recent hardships, stressors, and issues with drugs and mental health) and fail to incorporate the role that extremist ideology can play in many of these attacks. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the “evolving and persistent terrorism threat to the homeland,” in which “the greatest threat we face in the homeland emanates from self-radicalized lone actors, of any ideology, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” This depiction is in line with many other threat assessments conducted in recent years.

The 2019 report begins to tackle the issue of ideology, highlighting the rising threat of misogynistic extremism such as the incel movement. However, no other ideologies are discussed here. Also, in this section, the report describes the hyperconnected nature of the internet’s potential to radicalize, allowing “those with fringe or extremist ideologies to converge and promote their beliefs to a wider audience.” The report specifically calls out the message board 8kun as a hub for this type of content, particularly among the far right. Simply mentioning incel ideology without discussing white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of extremism, and just mentioning 8kun while saying nothing about Telegram, BitChute, and the many other dark corners of the internet where extremists congregate, makes this section seem woefully incomplete, more of a suggestion of areas for future research than an assessment informed by the 34 mass attacks carried out that year.

These annual assessments could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. In particular, clearing up definitional ambiguity around ideological affiliations could provide much needed clarity going forward. Assessing the importance of ideology for each attack is composed of two steps: (1) determining if the perpetrator had any history of association with extremist ideologies and (2) determining whether the extremist ideology had any impact on the attack itself. For example, the 2018 report finds that only two of 27 total attackers were motivated by an ideology: “one was motivated by anti-abortion beliefs while the other was motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs.” But the report also notes that

[W]hile only two of the attackers were primarily motivated by an ideology, nearly one-third of the attackers appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence. Often the attackers’ beliefs were multifaceted and touched on a range of issues, including white supremacy, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, sovereign citizens, animal rights, and the incel movement.

The nature of extremism today is multidimensional, decentralized, and highly connected; one attacker may be active in many online extremist communities, including those that glorify mass shooters and seek to gain the next “high score” in terms of fatalities when they conduct their own attacks. For future reports, the Secret Service should determine a methodology for identifying the attackers’ ideological affiliations, as well as the level of impact these ideologies had on the attack itself. Making this information public will provide important context to the rising threat of violent extremism in the US.

Pandora Report: 9.18.2020

Calling all budding biodefense students and professionals – the Schar School is hosting several virtual information sessions for prospective students!  To add further enticement, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi, an electrophysiologist AND neuropharmacologist, is joining the GMU Biodefense family this spring. In alarming news, dozens of drone incursions have flown over US nuclear sites by unknown operators with unknown objectives. The UN General Assembly just approved a broad resolution about the coronavirus pandemic, despite objections from the US. Also, we are welcoming a new student writer from the Biodefense MS Program, DeeDee Bowers, who is sharing her takeaways from a public convo about the future of DHS.

Commentary – Countering New Threats to the Homeland: The Future of the Department of Homeland Security

DeeDee Bowers, a Biodefense MS student, shares her takeaways from a webinar hosted by the Atlantic Council about the future of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). To achieve its objectives, DHS will have to evolve with the threat landscape. Read Bowers’ commentary here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Dozens More Mystery Drone Incursions Over US Nuclear Power Plants Revealed

Between 2015-2019, there have been at least 57 drone incursions over 24 nuclear sites in the US. Of the 57 known incidents, 49 of them were classified as “Closed Unresolved,” indicating that 85% of the drone incursions were conducted by unknown perpetrators with unknown intents. Last September, a swarm of about half a dozen large drones flew over a pressurized water reactor at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station for 80 minutes. The timespan of that incursion would be sufficient to thoroughly survey the site.

Welcome, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi!

This spring, the Schar School welcomes a new course (more to come later) with new adjunct faculty member Dr. Lauren Quattrochi! Dr. Quattrochi (aka Dr. Q) is classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuropharmacologist. Over the evolution of her career, she has worked within the biopharma industry, non-profits and for the past 4 years, in support of the government. She is currently a principal biotechnologist leading national level scientific and biosecurity initiatives within the US government. At the moment, Dr. Quattrochi serves as a technical advisor on both Hantavirus and COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing. She has led key projects within the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) on rapid vaccine preparedness, the Biomedical Research and Advanced Development Authority (BARDA) on their public-private partnerships and medical countermeasure sustainability, as well as the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) on accelerating breakthrough medical technologies from start-up biotechs. Prior to her current work, she spearheaded projects at Pfizer on drug delivery, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and metabolism for Schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Quattrochi has had the pleasure to teach STEM on infectious diseases in partnership with Brown University at the NIH, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and overseas in Greece. In her spare time, she teaches power vinyasa yoga and creates scientifically-inspired jewelry.

The Passing of an Arms Control Legend

The Pandora Report is sad to report that James F. Leonard, passed away recently at the age of 100. Ambassador Leonard was an ardent and articulate advocate for arms control and nonproliferation. As Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) from 1969-1973, Ambassador Leonard was the lead U.S. negotiator for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the first international treaty to ban an entire class of weapons. Ambassador Leonard recounted his long diplomatic career in a 1993 oral history. Following his retirement from government service, Ambassador Leonard remained actively involved in nonproliferation activities through his work with several non-government organizations. In 1989, Ambassador Leonard was a co-founder of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons at the Federation of American Scientists (now the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation). His decency and dedication to the cause of arms control will be truly missed.

Suboptimal US Response to COVID-19 Despite Robust Capabilities and Resources

Frankly, “suboptimal” is probably an understatement. Dr. Jennifer B. Nuzzo, Jessica A. Bell, and Dr.  Elizabeth E. Cameron published a Viewpoint piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about the poor response of the US to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors highlight that in September 2019, the release of the Global Health Security Index revealed several weaknesses of all countries, including the US. The Index, however, did not reveal the critical gaps in leadership that would soon lead to a failed pandemic response. The article breaks down the Index and indicator scores for the US and compares the US to other nations whose responses have been significantly stronger. Read the full article here.

Putin Borrowed a Page from Assad’s Chemical Weapon Playbook

The recent poisoning of Alexei Nalvany with a Novichok is just the latest in a series of poisonings by the Kremlin. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, draws on the history of Novichok incidents to compare Russian President Putin’s strategy to that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Like Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Putin’s use of a nerve agent to repress dissidents and critics and shamelessly violate the Chemical Weapons Convention, which explicitly bans Novichoks. Read Koblentz’s article here.

UN Assembly Approves Pandemic Resolution; US, Israel Object

On 11 September, the United Nations General Assembly approved an omnibus resolution titled “Comprehensive and coordinated response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.” The resolution calls for strengthened international cooperation and solidarity for the goals of containing, mitigating, and defeating the pandemic and its consequences using responses that are people-centered, gender-responsive, and respectful of human rights. It was adopted by a vote of 169-2, with the two votes against from the United States and Israel. The US objected to the resolution based on references to the World Health Organization (WHO), from which Trump has cut funding and intends to withdraw. Speaking of the WHO withdrawal, the administration is starting to reassign or recall the US officials working with the WHO. Additionally, the US wanted the removal of paragraphs that refer to women’s rights to “sexual and reproductive health” and to “promoting global sustainable transport.” Finally, the US opposed the any unilateral economic, financial, or trade sanctions.

The Labs Where Monsters Live

Nations are investing in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories to study dangerous pathogens and better prepare themselves for novel ones, but some scientists are worried about the potential for an accident in high-containment facilities or attacks using the creations of research. In terms of safety from accidents, laboratories must carefully select personnel, create a work culture of trust and accountability, and uphold strict safety protocols and rules. There is also debate about gain-of-function research, which could make a pathogen more dangerous by giving it new or enhanced abilities. Supporters of gain-of-function work argue that such research helps improve detection and create vaccines for future biothreats, but others worry that the risks do not outweigh the benefits. Another critical concern about BSL-4 laboratories is about who will be tasked with monitoring their activities. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, says that government oversight is crucial, but laboratory workers are the linchpins. The insider threat is the greatest security challenge, which is why US labs maintain a personnel reliability programmed designed to monitor scientists for issues like mental distress or financial distress. A worker could be radicalized by a group who encourages that individual to steal research or blackmailed by bad actor who encourages that individual to procure samples for them. Richard Ebright from Rutgers University warns that BSL-4 labs could become “tools for authoritarian governments” if there is not international transparency.

Interdisciplinary Information for Infectious Disease Response: Exercising for Improved Medical/Public Health Communication and Collaboration

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, and Dr. Nathan Myers, Associate Professor & Director of Public Administration at Indiana State University, published a paper about the importance of communication and training in relation to high consequence pathogens. They point out that recent infectious disease threats – like SARS-CoV-2 – require an increase in preparedness and response capabilities, especially in information sharing. Their policy analysis “reviews the threat that infectious diseases continue to pose to the United States, and the role that the Hospital Preparedness Program can play in countering such threats.” Based on their study, the authors provide recommendations for improved medical and public health communication and collaboration. Read the full article here.

Commentary – Countering New Threats to the Homeland: The Future of the Department of Homeland Security

By DeeDee Bowers, Biodefense MS Student

Since its creation in November of 2002 prompted by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been an all-encompassing entity for protecting America from threats to national security. After almost two decades, the national security landscape has changed, and the role of DHS has been challenged and must evolve. As Charles Darwin once stated, survival of the fittest does not refer to the ones that are the strongest or smartest but rather the ones most adaptable to change. If DHS is going to continue to thrive, regardless of the presidential administration in place, it must adapt from the landscape it was born into to the current unpredictable times of 2020 and beyond.

Black swan events, or unpredictable events, require a new perspective and imagination within DHS in order for it to better handle the responsibilities of protecting the American people. During the Gulf War, the American Military displayed a strong force to deter our enemies from confronting America on the modern battlefield. Non-state actors instead chose to take alternative actions to inflict damage on America using commercial airliners and the US Postal Service.  Since the early 2000s, threats to America now encompass the “homeland security enterprise.” The homeland security enterprise is a partnership between state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments, private sectors, the public, and the federal government. The homeland security enterprise now has the enormous undertaking of assuring security of the homeland from events such as terrorist attacks through nonmilitary means, natural disasters, immigration concerns, cybersecurity threats, election security, and pandemics such as COVID-19. All of this must be done in a tactful way to instill confidence in the American people that DHS can indeed adapt to the threats of the time while in a highly politicized environment and remain apolitical.

Former Secretaries of DHS Michael Chertoff, Jeh Johnson, and Janet Napolitano spoke during the Atlantic Council’s webinar to share their thoughts on how the DHS will or should evolve. All agreed that a more stable appointment by the presidential administration would be necessary for quality DHS operation and response. In addition, Secretary Jeh Johnson, suggested an apolitical administration to remind Americans of all of DHS’s goals and a change in policy direction would be necessary to include more threats. Experts such as Thomas Fanning, and Amy Rall suggested these threats include biological as illustrated by COVID-19, physical assaults on critical infrastructure, and cybersecurity concerns such as ransomware. Fanning also stressed that vulnerabilities due to ignorance may gain clarity through the homeland security enterprise, where the less restricted private sector works in close collaboration with DHS to convey joint security. In addition, Fanning, recommended a national campaign to inform and teach the public about how to protect themselves from threats they may not be aware of. In the beginning of the webinar, Max Brooks, described how the strength of the American society and governmental departments such as DHS come from the American people whom are presently fractured. To overcome this, Brooks suggested “new ideas [to combat future threats] are useless without the courage to champion them and a society to support these champions.”

Pandora Report: 9.11.2020

This week’s Pandora Report covers, brace yourself, some of the latest developments related to COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2! For those of us desperate for a momentary pause from pandemic news, we also summarized a brief history on assassinations using nerve agents and highlighted a new report about human heritable gene editing (think CRISPR babies). On a lighter note, Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on arson as an increasingly popular terrorist tactic.

In Memory of 9/11

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On that morning, four coordinated terrorist attacks were carried out by 19 members of al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. The attacks targeted the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex and a third plane into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania. The attacks killed 2,997 people from 93 nations.

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides important insight on the use of arson as a terrorist tactic, especially as the pandemic provides opportunities to exploit and amplify public chaos and discomfort.  A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

FAO/OIE/WHO Tripartite Statement on the Pandemic Risk of Swine Influenza

A recent report documenting the circulation of A(H1N1) subtype influenza viruses in China’s swine population is an alert for the pandemic risks with swine influenza viruses. A tripartite statement from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO) urges the rapid analysis and risk assessment of new and updated swine influenza surveillance data. It also recommends that laboratories continue to conduct tests for swine influenza given the concern regarding human infections with novel influenza viruses including strains of swine-origin.  

Update: COVID-19 Vaccine

With 321 candidates, the COVID-19 vaccine research and development landscape has progressed at a record rate. Of the total candidates, 33 are in clinical trials with plans to enroll nearly 300,000 subjects from over 470 sites in 34 countries. Candidate types run the gamut: live attenuated virus, inactivated virus, non-replicating viral vector based, replicating viral vector based, recombinant protein, virus-like particle, DNA, and RNA. Clinical development requires well-designed trials with a carefully selected endpoint, insight into what constitutes protective immunity, adequate representation of the target population, and strong considerations for safety. Despite the unprecedented headway, there exist several hurdles and uncertainties regarding the approval of a vaccine. In regard to Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that a “deep state” in the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) was slowing approval of a vaccine, the FDA is shielding vaccine reviewers from outside political influence and noise. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn announced that the agency will maintain “high standards that Americans expect for safety and effectiveness,” so there will be no shortcuts taken to perilously accelerate the timeline to approval. In terms of a timeline, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not anticipate widespread COVID-19 vaccinations until mid-2021. According to WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris, there has yet to be a “clear signal” from candidates in vaccine trials that efficacy has reached the minimum 50% level. This week, US public health officials and Pfizer stated that a vaccine could be ready for distribution as soon as late October, right before the presidential election.

History of Nerve Agent Assassinations

On 20 August, Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, was hospitalized for illness due to poisoning. After being airlifted to Germany for treatment, a German military laboratory confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in a failed assassination attempt. This was not the first case of a political opponent – or a perceived enemy – being the victim of poisoning, as Jean-Pascal Zanders has detailed in his brief history of the use of nerve agents for assassination.  In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. More recently, in 2017, a binary version of VX was used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Two years ago, a Novichok nerve agent was ineffectively used by Russia in an attempt to eliminate a former double agent living in the United Kingdom. Between 1994 and 2020, Zanders has tallied a dozen known assassination operations with neurotoxicants like Novichok. Although only two of the 11 direct targets died, nine innocent bystanders were killed and hundreds more sickened.

Navigating a Post-Pandemic World

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened 150 scholars from 20 nations to create a digital magazine that provides “grounded, fresh analysis and new approaches to some of the most consequential challenges unfolding before us.” The magazine, “The Day After: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World,” covers a range of important topics like nuclear arms control, disinformation, climate change, and the foreign and domestic policies of several countries. Current featured essays include “India’s Path to the Big Leagues” by Ashley J Tellis, “Securing Cyberspace” by Michael Nelson and George Perkovich, and “A Coming Decade of Arab Decisions” by Marwan Muasher and Maha Yahya. Read the magazine here.

Half of Troops See Coronavirus as a Major Threat for the Military: Poll

According to a Military Times Poll conducted in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, about half of surveyed active-duty troops believe the pandemic poses a “significant threat to military readiness and operations.” On the other hand, respondents were divided over the sufficiency of service leaders’ response. Results found that 48% of surveyed service members “do not believe their chain of command has taken the appropriate steps to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” but 46% “have confidence in leadership’s response.” Response measures included shutting down most military travel for three months, pausing changes to duty stations, and significantly curbing worldwide operations. As of this week, the Department of Defense has reported over 39,000 COVID-19 cases among military members along with 17,000 cases among civilian employees, military dependents, and contractors. To date, seven service members have died from COVID-19 complications.

Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy

As the world races to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, countries such as China and Russia are expanding their espionage efforts to steal information at US research institutes and companies. Chinese hackers targeted the University of North Carolina and other universities working on vaccine research against the novel coronavirus, and Russia’s foremost intelligence service, the SVR, is following suit. Iran is also trying to steal vaccine research information form the US. To sum it up, every major espionage service in the world is working to purloin US data and research related to COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic has created a “grand game of spy versus spy,” with the US as a key target. This newly enhanced threat has prompted the US to expand its protective efforts for universities and R&D companies. Additionally, NATO intelligence is inspecting efforts by the Kremlin to steal vaccine research. According to a current and a former official, China is covertly using material from the World Health Organization to inform its hacking attempts in the US and Europe. In regard to China’s spying and hacking, US intelligence officials first learned about the attempts in early February, the start of the pandemic in the US. In July, the Department of Justice indicted two hackers working for China’s Ministry of State Security spy service for conducting a computer intrusion campaign targeting intellectual property and confidential business information. In response to such discovered attempts, the administration ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. Members of Cozy Bear, a Russian hacking group, were caught attempting to steal vaccine data. On 11 August, Russia announced that it had approved a vaccine, an event that provoked suspicion that its R&D was involuntarily aided by stolen information. Beyond US universities, it is suspected that foreign spies are targeting biotech companies Gilead Sciences, Novavax, and Moderna. Though no corporation or university has reported any data thefts, some hacking efforts have successfully penetrated network defenses.

Report of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released its report, Heritable Human Genome Editing, drafted by the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing. Heritable genome editing entails changing the genetic material of ova, sperm, or any cell related to their development (cells of early embryos), and establishing pregnancy. This capability raises scientific, medical, ethical, moral, and societal concerns. In 2018, a Chinese scientist announced the birth of the first genome-edited human babies, commonly referred to as the “CRISPR babies,” which sparked legal and bioethical controversies and widespread disapproval. The scientist behind the CRISPR babies was removed from his research position and sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice.” This heavily-publicized and criticized event spurred a great debate about the use and ethics of human heritable gene editing. The Commission was convened by NASEM with the objective of developing a “framework for scientists, clinicians, and regulatory authorities to consider when assessing potential clinical applications of human germline genome editing, should society conclude that heritable human genome editing applications are acceptable.”  Read the full report here.

Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, examines key geopolitical trends expected to shape the future nuclear proliferation landscape. The reports identifies and assesses seven trends such as the rise of authoritarian leadership, the increase in nuclear threats and growing tensions within regional security environments, and the swelling competitiveness between the US and China as well as the US and Russia. This report was written with Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student and a Program Coordinator for the Project on Nuclear Issues at CSIS. Read the full report here.

News of the Weird: COVID-19 Instigates Ad Changes

As the pandemic endures, large companies are reconsidering their advertising jingles. After 64 years, Kentucky Fried Chicken (lovingly known as KFC), announced that it is suspending its famous “finger lickin’ good” slogan in order to better support public health measures. Similarly, McDonald’s Brazil debuted a socially-distanced logo with its famous golden arches spread apart. Burger King is also adjusting its store logo by replacing “Home of the Whopper” signs with “Stay Home” signs. COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity for company re-branding, even if only temporarily.

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

By Stevie Kiesel, PhD Student

In 2018, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history tore through the state. The Camp Fire killed 85 and caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage. The towns of Concow and Paradise were nearly completely destroyed. Not even a year later, Australia experienced an uncharacteristically destructive bushfire season that ultimately killed 34 people, burned nearly 50 million acres, and destroyed almost 6,000 buildings. The fires also wrought devastating impacts on the environment, and cleanup costs alone have exceeded $5 billion.

The most extreme terrorist groups aspire to achieve this level of death and destruction. It therefore comes as no surprise that jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State and its affiliates, have touted these fires and others in their propaganda. A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” Voice of Hind, an online magazine published by an Islamic State affiliate in India, has encouraged adherents to use fire as a comparatively simple means of attack to “annihilate the disbelievers.” Jihadist publications and videos have touted the use of fire for years, from the Islamic State publication al-Naba (as well as their now-defunct magazine Rumiyah) to Al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire. In 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for widespread crop fires that caused a great deal of damage in Iraq and Syria.

The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. In a recent example from April 2020, John Michael Rathbun was charged with attempted arson after trying to use gasoline to start a fire at a Jewish assisted living center in Massachusetts. Rathbun was active on white supremacist internet forums—so active, and so lax about what he was posting, that his attack was discovered after he posted his plans on a public calendar on Telegram. Similarly, in 2019 far-right extremist Tristan Morgan accidentally set himself on fire while attempting to burn down the Exeter Synagogue in the United Kingdom. Despite the tactical errors in these cases, the threat of arson terrorism should be taken seriously. Arson has a long history of being used to terrorize black neighborhoods, businesses, and churches in the United States. Even when no lives are lost, the psychological and economic impact of these attacks can be severe.

Environmental and animal rights extremists also have a history of arson attacks. Arson was particularly appealing to their ideology because they wanted to destroy facilities or machinery that they felt were doing harm, but they did not necessarily want to harm humans or animals. For example, the Earth Liberation Front advocated a tactic called “monkeywrenching,” which refers to sabotage and property destruction against industries that they perceive to be damaging the environment. Common monkeywrenching tactics include arson, sabotaging logging and construction equipment, and tree spiking. The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of fires, the most destructive being the 1998 fire at a Colorado ski facility, which reportedly caused $12 million in damage. Other special interest groups that have a history of engaging in arson include the Animal Liberation Front (animal rights) and the Coalition to Save the Preserves (environmental protection). Anti-abortion extremists have also conducted arson attacks, though organizationally they would be considered lone wolf attacks rather than attacks affiliated with a specific group.

While these cases demonstrate clear interest and intent to weaponize fire by a wide range of terrorist groups, a more systematic look at arson as a terrorist tactic is possible by using the Global Terrorism Database developed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. This database, whose information is publicly available from 1970 through 2018, captures arson as a unique weapon type. The four charts below show some interesting trends about arson use throughout history.

Charts compiled by author using data from the START Global Terrorism Database.

*Note that for Chart 4 (Top 15 Groups Using Arson, 1970-2018), the top result was an unknown group (n=1,792) followed by the groups listed in the chart.

Arson is an attractive tactic for many types of terrorist groups. Fire can be incredibly destructive in terms of lives lost, property and economic damages, and psychological impact. Arson is a low-cost and low-skill tactic, and elements of nature (such as high winds) can be used as a force multiplier. Additionally, arson can function as just one element of a complex attack, with a potential for “ambushes (luring), intentional depletion of resources (diversion), and follow-on or secondary attacks.” Large fires are also incredibly appealing to terrorist groups with apocalyptic or accelerationist ideologies, such as jihadist and extreme right-wing groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a significant impact on terrorism. Because of ongoing public safety measures and many people’s discomfort with crowded areas at the moment, typical soft targets for terrorist attacks are not as plentiful as before the pandemic. Arson may become a more attractive method to terrorists during this time because fires can drive people out of their homes and, much like a virus, once started, fire can spread far and leave devastation in its path. Another worrying development that has accelerated during the pandemic is the rise and increased reach of conspiracy theories. These theories can be incredibly radicalizing, particularly when people are spending more time at home and online while suffering anxiety over the pandemic and the economy. One example of a conspiracy theory whose adherents have committed arson attacks: the theory that 5G cellphone towers are somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. This theory has led to more than 70 arson attacks on cell phone towers, which can put people’s lives at risk if the towers are damaged and access to emergency services is disrupted. Such attacks on critical infrastructure have not gone unnoticed, particularly on white supremacist messaging boards. As COVID-19 forces terrorists to adapt, the potential for arson attacks should not be ignored.