Pandora Report 07.23.2021

This week’s Pandora Report continues to cover developments in the investigation into SARS-CoV-2’s origins and brings you the latest news on COVID-19, from vaccine passports to the Tokyo Olympics. We round out the report with norms against chemical weapons use, recommendations to improve the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, and the good old-fashioned plague. And don’t miss the summary from the GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security workshop. 

The Debate Continues: Origins of SARS-CoV-2

For several weeks we have been covering the renewed debate over COVID-19’s origins. The WHO Director-General has urged China to increase its transparency about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and allow greater access to its laboratories to help resolve questions about the virus’s origins. To push back on that narrative, Chinese officials and media are now claiming that the Maryland-based Fort Detrick Research Institute of Infectious Diseases should be investigated as a potential origin source for COVID-19, a theory that Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz calls “bizarre and ridiculous.” A new article from Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology and Director of the Global Alliance for Preventing Pandemics, describes the “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns of COVID-19.” Another recent piece, by Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Yanzhong Huang, provides a detailed overview of the recent debate and makes the case that ambiguity over COVID-19’s origins is threatening international efforts to cooperate on biosecurity and public health, with potentially long-lasting negative consequences.

CDC Vote of No Confidence in British “Freedom Day”

Despite a recent rise in COVID-19 cases, almost all lockdown restrictions in England were lifted on July 19th, what Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling “Freedom Day.” Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland still have many of their restrictions in place, but in England, masks are no longer mandatory, capacity limits have been lifted, and social distancing requirements are limited to airports and people who have tested positive for the virus. While 68% of England’s adult population is fully vaccinated, in a single day last weekend the country recorded 48,161 new COVID-19 cases. Therefore, on Freedom Day the CDC raised its UK Risk Assessment Level for COVID-19 to “Level 4: COVID-19 Very High,” and the State Department raised its travel advisory level to “Level 4: Do Not Travel.”

Citius, Altius, Fortius…Infectious?

The Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” translates to “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Athletes strive to smash records and take home the gold. Unfortunately, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics may shatter a record as a super-spreader event of COVID-19. Precautionary measures for this year’s Olympics include daily testing, mask requirements, and distancing measures for athletes, and no fans will be in attendance. However, public health experts have pointed out potential issues with testing capacity and indoor ventilation systems, and they assess that “without stricter mitigation measures…clusters of infection are likely to propagate.” Cases are currently rising in Japan, and the country has struggled with vaccine distribution—only 17% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated. Additionally, 15% of Olympic athletes have not yet been vaccinated. At least 71 people involved with the Olympics have tested positive for COVID-19, and more are in isolation after exposure to the infected. A poll this week in a Japanese newspaper showed that 68% of Japanese respondents doubt the Olympics can be held safely and securely; the chart below shows opinions across multiple countries. The head of the Olympics organizing committee has not ruled out a last-minute cancellation, but said they are monitoring the situation closely.

This chart shows how many people in selected countries are opposed to holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID and Congress

Congress continues consideration of issues related to COVID-19, and several stakeholders have reached out to Congress to advocate for their view. A summary of these activities follows.

On July 14, the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing titled “Principles for Outbreak Investigation: COVID-19 and Future Infectious Diseases.” This hearing was the first in a series to understand how COVID-19 started and what can be done to lessen the toll of future outbreaks. Specifically, the committee examined the scientific underpinnings of the investigation into COVID-19’s origins because “the lack of transparency from the Chinese government about health emergencies of international consequence is a very serious geopolitical and science diplomacy challenge.” Though China has not been transparent with its data, the committee chair repeatedly emphasized that “the absence of data is not itself evidence of a lab leak or something more sinister.” You can watch the full hearing here, and we will cover any future hearings on this topic.

Leaders of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition have urged Congressional leadership to establish a national COVID-19 commission to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and assess the United States’ response to the pandemic. The stated purpose of the commission is “not to point fingers or assign blame, but rather to make the United States stronger and more resilient” for the next pandemic.

The Congressional Research Service published a report that reviews arguments about the pandemic’s potential implications for the international security environment. While some argue that the pandemic could be a “world-changing event with potentially profound and long-lasting implications,” others are more skeptical about these dramatic effects. The report reviews the areas of potential change and provides government assessments and potential issues for Congressional consideration. You can read the report here.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a white paper that will be disseminated to Congress and the Biden administration. Titled “Time to Escalate U.S. Leadership on COVID-19 and Beyond,” the white paper makes five key recommendations. First, the White House should establish a leadership structure to coordinate pandemic preparedness and response activities across the interagency. Second, the U.S. should develop a detailed strategy to achieve 70% vaccine coverage of low- and lower-middle-income countries by mid-2022. Third, the U.S. and international partners should establish an international financing mechanism to underwrite basic elements of pandemic preparedness in low- and middle-income countries. Fourth, the U.S. should systematically address the current economic crises in low- and middle-income countries. And finally, the U.S. should invest in basic global health security and epidemic preparedness, focusing on primary healthcare and immunization; research and development for vaccines, therapeutics, and manufacturing capacity; strengthening the WHO; and undertaking a domestic review of biosafety and biosecurity practices. You may also be interested in this newly released GAO report with additional recommendations to improve COVID-19 response.

And finally, the American Society for Microbiology has issued a letter to the House Appropriations Committee “urging them to reject attempts to impose restrictions on federally funded research or the operations of federal science agencies based on premature conclusions about how the pandemic emerged.” Such restrictions could impede potentially lifesaving research; any restrictions should be based firmly in science and not in political posturing.

COVID-19 Vaccine Inequities

Although much has been written about those who voluntarily choose to forego the COVID-19 vaccine, several recent stories highlight the struggles groups are facing in getting the vaccine even if they want it. The International Council of Nurses is sounding the alarm that healthcare workers are being left behind in efforts to provide vaccines against COVID-19 worldwide. Official WHO estimates count 6,643 healthcare worker deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, though the WHO itself estimates the real figure is at least 115,000 (if not much higher) because “many countries are not officially reporting the number of health and care workers who have died” from COVID-19. Just 1 in 8 healthcare workers is fully vaccinated, and the vast majority of these are in richer nations. This vaccine inequity among countries is incredibly stark: for example, while Canada has procured more than 10 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for every 1 resident, Haiti has just received its first delivery of vaccines—and only received 500,000 doses for a population of over 11 million. This global inequity can be attributed to several factors: export restrictions initially kept COVID-19 doses within vaccine manufacturers’ borders, the global purchase plan to provide vaccines for poorer countries was severely flawed and underfunded, and “intellectual property rights vied with global public health for priority.” You can read more about these factors here.

Another Successful Workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security

On July 19-21, 38 individuals from across the United States and around the world participated in the Biodefense Graduate Program’s virtual summer workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security. As usual, the workshop attracted a highly experienced group that represented the multiple sectors, agencies, and disciplines that are involving in preventing, preparing for, and responding to pandemics, bioterrorism, and other threats to global health security. This year’s attendees included members of government agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Sandia National Laboratory, the state health departments of Arkansas and New Mexico, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Defence Research and Development Canada; the private sector including Booz Allen Hamilton and the biosurveillance firm BlueDot; non-profits such as CRDF Global; universities including Aga Khan, George Mason, Howard, University of Maryland, Naval Postgraduate School, and the University of Sussex; and international organizations such as Europol and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.

Over the course of three half-days, the workshop attendees received briefings from world-class experts in the fields of virology, science communication, global health, medical countermeasures, ethics, hospital biopreparedness, and biodefense. While the format was virtual, participants were able to interact with the faculty and each other during stimulating Q&A and discussion sessions. Even though all of the presentations focused in some way on the COVID-19 pandemic, the instructors provided insights applicable to a wide range of biological threats. Based on the presentations and discussions, there is no shortage of lessons learned from the current pandemic that could be used to develop institutions and systems to prevent the next local outbreak of a novel respiratory disease from becoming a global pandemic.

Workshop on COVID-19 Credentials for International Travel, August 3-5

Last week we told you about an upcoming National Academies study on digital vaccine credentials, led by GMU Biodefense Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu. If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into the utility, feasibility, security, and ethics of establishing verifiable COVID-19 credentials for international travel, Dr. Popescu’s committee is hosting a 3‑day webinar to explore these issues. Participants will contribute perspectives from domestic and international governments, multilateral health and business organizations, academia, and private and non-profit sectors. You can register for the event here, and read the latest WHO guidance on vaccination proof requirements for travel here.

Don’t Forget the Classics: Updates on Plague

SARS-CoV-2 may be the trendy pathogen these days, but like bellbottom jeans and choker necklaces, plague appears to be making a comeback…in the academic literature at least. The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report just published updated recommendations for antimicrobial treatment and prophylaxis of plague. The original recommendations were published in 2000 and are being updated to incorporate new human clinical data, animal study data, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals of additional countermeasures. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, is naturally present worldwide and has been recognized as a potential bioweapon—the CDC classifies it as a Category A agent. These recommendations can be used by clinicians and public health officials to prepare for and respond to a plague mass-casualty event. Additionally, a recent article in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal examined the potential for plague transmission from corpses and carcasses to humans. While the authors did not find direct evidence for this type of transmission in the literature, they described a transmission pathway and assessed the potential for transmission at each step. Ultimately, they concluded that “pneumonic plague can be transmitted by intensive handling of the corpse or carcass, presumably through the inhalation of respiratory droplets, and that bubonic plague can be transmitted by blood-to-blood contact with the body fluids of a corpse or carcass.” These findings should be used when developing protocols for handling bodies of people or animals who died of plague.

Opinion: Putin Escapes Accountability for Chemical Weapons Use

Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Anthony Ruggiero and research fellow Andrea Stricker contend that Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the Biden administration’s relative inaction on the enforcement of the global norm against chemical weapons. Although Russia claims that its chemical weapons program was dismantled in 2017, there have been two confirmed cases of Russian chemical weapons use since then. Both cases involved assassination attempts with Novichok, a nerve agent “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” Russia also defies the norm against chemical weapons by supporting the erroneous claim that the Syrian government dismantled its chemical weapons stockpiles in 2014, despite multiple confirmed instances of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government since that time. The article authors argue that “Putin knows that if the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons cannot hold a lesser rogue state like Syria accountable, then it will never challenge Moscow.” You can read their assessment of the problem and proposed solutions here.

Improving the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) consolidated the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and Office of Health Affairs into the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office. This office “leads DHS efforts and coordinates with domestic and international partners to safeguard the United States against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear and health security threats.” Over the years, GAO has evaluated and made recommendations for a number of programs managed by legacy offices, including biosurveillance, nuclear/radiological detection, and chemical defense programs. GAO recently testified before Congress on the status of these recommendations and the consolidation into the CWMD Office. They identified ongoing challenges with the proposed replacement for the BioWatch system, low employee morale, collaboration between the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, and the Securing the Cities program. You can read the full testimony here.

How to Build a Global Pathogen Early Warning System

The Council on Strategic Risks has just released a report assessing the current state of global biosurveillance and recommending the creation of a global pathogen early warning system to “catch the full range of biological threats before they become devastating pandemics.” Informed by the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report identifies critical gaps in biosurveillance, such as inconsistent capabilities across geographic areas, poor information-sharing, and time delays. However, the report is generally optimistic that the foundation for robust global biosurveillance exists. The envisioned global pathogen early warning system would cover key high-risk nodes, and the technologies would be flexible and interoperable to work in a variety of operational settings. The authors also propose enabling recommendations, such as conducting additional deep dives into biosurveillance systems, investing in a wide range of tools, and launching confidence-building measures and other diplomatic efforts to develop trust and foster collaboration. You can learn much more in the report here.

Congratulations to Bonnie Jenkins on Her Recent Confirmation

Bonnie Jenkins has just been confirmed as the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Undersecretary Jenkins has a long history within the arms control and national security communities, particularly in chemical, biological, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. She has served as the Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs and she is a military veteran, professor, and academic who has worked in government, think tanks, nonprofits, and philanthropy. Hers is a historic nomination of the first African American person to hold the rank of Undersecretary of State, and her expertise and perspective will help tackle key challenges in arms control and disarmament today.

Webinar: The Threat of Designer Pathogens, August 3

Since the completion of the human genome project in 2003, there has been a surge of investments and discoveries in the fields of gene sequencing and synthetic biology and biotechnology. However, such advancements give rise to new security challenges. Improvements in the accuracy, accessibility, and speed of synthesis technologies and their possible use by malicious actors increase the risk of newly emerging bioterrorism weapons and agents. NCT CBRNe is hosting a webinar to ask: What is the international stance regarding this threat? How can we deal with it? Which mechanisms exist to tackle it? You can register for the event here.

Schar School PhD Virtual Open House, August 11

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and our academic programs. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. The online session will provide an overview of our doctoral degree programs, and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. Register here.

George Mason University Announces New Vaccination Requirements

GMU has announced updated requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations among students, faculty, and staff in light of the most recent data. Everyone who works, studies, and lives on campus must get vaccinated and share verification of their vaccination status, except in cases of approved exemptions for medical and religious reasons. You can read more here.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network have teamed up to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to find creative answers to the questions: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom? Teams of at least three participants, with members from two or more countries, must submit papers by July 28. Papers may be published online by NTI and GHS, and the winning team will also receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. You can learn more about the competition here.

Pandora Report 07.16.2021

This week’s Pandora Report is packed full of insights from GMU Biodefense professors, alumni, and students on bioterrorism, vaccine passports, misinformation about biothreats, and genome editing. We also cover global food security, radiological terrorism, and the latest on chemical weapons, and bring you an update on the debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origins.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Risk of Bioterrorism

Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel have just published an article in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism titled The COVID-19 Pandemic: Catalyst or Complication for Bioterrorism? The pandemic has demonstrated how an infectious disease can cause massive casualties, destabilize governments, and garner intense media attention as countries struggle to respond effectively. The authors examine whether the pandemic is likely to inspire terrorists to consider biological weapons, hoping to replicate these effects, by reviewing existing schools of thought on bioterrorism risk and analyzing recent developments among extremists. You can read the article here (access required).

Is Your Office Safe from COVID-19?

GMU Biodefense Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu recently weighed in on evaluating the safety of a shared workspace as many companies begin planning how to bring workers back to the office. The CDC’s latest guidelines state that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in environments like an office, while those who aren’t fully vaccinated will need masks, physical distancing, and adequate ventilation. There are several steps you can take to assess and improve the safety of your workplace, including understanding cleaning procedures, purchasing a portable air filter, and following COVID-19 trends in your community to assess the likelihood that you may encounter SARS-CoV-2. However, Dr. Popescu cautions that “your workplace might not be a perfect microcosm of what is going on in your community” and local trends can change quickly, so she advises that vaccination, physical separation, and adequate ventilation and air filtration are key. You can read more here.

COVID-19 Vaccines: Booster Shots and Vaccine Passports

Dr. Popescu will also be chairing a National Academies study on digital vaccine credentials. This study will explore challenges and opportunities associated with a COVID-19 vaccine travel pass. You can read more about the study here, and you’ll find GAO’s recent primer on this issue here. Additionally, Dr. Popescu will be teaching an online class this fall on healthcare system resilience. This course will provide students with a foundation in how healthcare systems prepare for and respond to pandemics, disasters, and biological events. Students will review case studies, such as Ebola, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and COVID-19, to understand the unique challenges of building and sustaining the resilience of the American healthcare system and its role in global health security.

In other vaccine news, Israel is the first country in the world offering a third Pfizer shot amid a spike in COVID-19 cases attributed to the delta variant. The booster shot is offered to adults with a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, particularly those with a severe immunodeficiency or who have recently undergone an organ transplant. So far, the US contends that more evidence is needed before recommending a booster shot, and some hypothesize that COVID-19 boosters could come with a risk of more serious side effects.

GMU Biodefense Professor Serving on Committee to Address Biothreats Misinformation

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Associate Professor in the GMU Biodefense Program, will be serving on a National Academies Committee to consider scientists’ role in addressing misinformation and disinformation related to biological threats. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley brings a diverse range of expertise in organization and management of weapons programs, tacit knowledge and weapons development, WMD terrorism, and bioweapons dissuasion. The COVID-19 pandemic provides just one example of the insidious nature of misinformation associated with biological agents, resulting in challenges with effective outbreak control and rising distrust in institutions. This committee will evaluate how to enable long-term engagement of scientists internationally to identify and address claims about biological threats that emerge from or are perpetuated by inaccurate and misleading information. More information on this committee is available here.

Food for Thought: A “Dramatic Worsening” of World Hunger in 2020

A United Nations report recently found “dramatic worsening of world hunger in 2020,” much of which is likely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly one-tenth of the global population, or nearly 811 million people, were considered undernourished last year. This represents a significant hurdle to the global goal of ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Since the mid-2010s, global rates of hunger have been creeping upwards. Though the challenge of reducing global hunger is at a “critical juncture,” this year will bring key opportunities to advance food security and nutrition at the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit, and the COP26 on climate change. The report also describes six “transformation pathways” that should be pursued to counteract the main drivers of hunger and malnutrition. You can read the full report here.

If you’re interested in learning more, Professor Philip Thomas will be teaching a course for the GMU Biodefense program this fall. Global Food Security will analyze threats to food security globally, including those related to climate change and environmental degradation; animal and plant diseases; access to clean water; agricultural terrorism; and antimicrobial resistance. The class will also explore the national and global health, economic, social, and ethical impacts of these disruptive forces and examine strategies for enhancing the security of the global food production and supply systems. In addition to teaching, Professor Thomas also heads the cross-cutting International Development Global Food Security Project, which addresses the numerous challenges confronting international food assistance issues. Prior to his current position, Professor Thomas worked for the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) for 45 years, serving as a key liaison between Congress and GAO on international food assistance, global food security, and United Nations management reform issues.

Public Health Preparedness News

COVID-19 will likely be a forerunner of future catastrophic pandemics, unless significant new investments and reforms are urgently made to bolster global and national capacities for pandemic preparedness and rapid response.” This is the finding of a recent report, A Global Deal for Our Pandemic Age, written by the G20 High Level Independent Panel on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Panel was tasked with proposing how finance can be organized to reduce the world’s vulnerability to future pandemics. They identified four major global gaps in pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response related to (1) globally networked surveillance and research, (2) resilient national systems, (3) the supply of medical countermeasures and tools, and (4) global governance. The Panel recommended an international funding increase of US$75 billion over the next five years to address these gaps. While this seems like a large sum, the Panel points out that “the costs to government budgets alone from pandemics are up to 700 times larger than the annual additional international investments proposed.”

Also informed by COVID-19, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently published 13 recommendations for legislation to strengthen the US’s public health and improve medical preparedness and response for future public health events. Highlights include expediting development of medical countermeasures, particularly for unknown viral threats; investing in the development of at-home diagnostic technology, new vaccine delivery platforms, and social science research into outbreak management; making several organizational changes to support epidemic forecasting, research, and response; and developing strategies for combatting health-related misinformation and infectious disease disaster recovery. You can read more about these proposals here.

WHO Releases Reports on Human Genome Editing

The WHO has just released two companion reports with the first global, multisectoral recommendations to help establish human genome editing as a tool for public health, with consideration for safety, effectiveness, and ethics. The reports include recommendations for governance and oversight in nine relevant areas: WHO leadership; international collaboration; human genome editing registries; international research and medical travel; illegal, unregistered, unethical, and unsafe research; intellectual property; education, engagement, and empowerment; ethical values; and WHO review. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz has discussed the importance of robust international oversight of gene editing because of its potentially global implications if something goes wrong. If you’re interested in gene editing regulations, the Genetic Literacy Project has developed a set of interactive tools that track and index these regulations worldwide. The tracker is available here, and you can read the reports here.

Update: The Debate Over SARS-CoV-2’s Origins

Last week we brought you two sides of the debate over the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Since SARS-CoV-2 began spreading worldwide, researchers and policymakers have questioned where it came from. There have been two major theories: that SARS-CoV-2 is natural in origin and jumped from an animal to humans in a natural spillover event, or that SARS-CoV-2 resulted from a laboratory accident (or “lab leak”) at the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. There has also been a fair amount of criticism over the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) handling of the outbreak investigation. In February 2021, the WHO published a joint report with China on the investigation into SARS-CoV-2’s origins, finding that the virus most likely jumped from one animal species to an intermediary animal host and then to people. Now, the WHO has said that it will fix several “unintended errors” in that report and “look into other possible discrepancies.” Specifically, the virus sequence IDs associated with three early patients will be updated, and the report will clarify that the first family cluster was not linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan. A WHO spokesman has said that these changes are not relevant to the hypotheses about the virus’s origins. We will continue to bring you any relevant updates.

A Model Code of Conduct for Biological Scientists

In anticipation of the Ninth Review Conference of the BWC, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has partnered with Tianjin University to finalize a set of guiding principles and code of conduct for individual scientists and institutes engaging in biological research. This document builds on a working paper developed by China and Pakistan and submitted to the Eighth Review Conference of the BWC in 2016. The principles and standards established in the code of conduct are designed to be adaptable to many contexts and used to develop new or enhance existing guidance to fill any gaps in biosecurity governance at national or institutional levels. You can read the proposed code of conduct here.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network have teamed up to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to find creative answers to the questions: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom? Teams of at least three participants, with members from two or more countries, must submit papers by July 28. Papers may be published online by NTI and GHS, and the winning team will also receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. You can learn more about the competition here.

Rosatom Report Describes Radiological Terrorism Risk from the Islamic State

Rosatom, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, recently released its 2020 Annual Report. According to this report, Rosatom received information from the US Embassy in Moscow, through the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the Islamic State was planning to acquire radioactive sources from a Russian site. Upon receiving this warning, in September 2020 “all Russian operators of sites handling radioactive material and associated facilities conducted unscheduled self-assessment of physical protection at sites.” For any of our readers who can read Russian, the Rosatom report is available here.

International collaboration to combat the threat of radiological terrorism is key. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) broke ground this week on the IAEA Nuclear Security Training and Demonstration Centre in Vienna, Austria. This facility, slated to break ground in 2023, will “help strengthen countries’ ability to tackle nuclear terrorism in areas such as the illegal trafficking on nuclear material and the physical protection of facilities and major public events.” You can read more about the site here.

Chemical Weapons: Deployment, Destruction, and Other Developments

Several recent stories will catch you up on the status of chemical weapons around the world. The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) published a munitions typology of chemical weapons deployed in the Syrian War to date. The research team identified six types of munitions that strong evidence shows were used in specific chemical attacks, though they advise that the current typology is not exhaustive and there is more work to be done. This effort is part of a larger GPPI project to document and analyze Syrian chemical weapons use—you can explore the full project here.

A new brief from the Congressional Research Service reviews the Russian government’s use of a chemical weapon against opposition figure and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny. In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” Upon further investigation, the US intelligence community assessed with high confidence that Russia’s Federal Security Service was responsible for the attack. In response, acting in accordance with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, the Biden administration imposed an initial round of sanctions in March 2021. The brief discusses these sanctions further here.

Meanwhile, the US continues to proceed with destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles. In 1997, the US ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty and agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by 2007. However, this deadline has been extended several times due to technical challenges with the safe destruction of chemical weapons, for Russia as well as the US. The Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP) in Kentucky is currently destroying M55 rockets containing VX nerve agent. Rockets are complex munitions, and the process involves disassembling nearly 18,000 rockets, draining and neutralizing the chemical agent to produce hydrolysate, moving the hydrolysate to holding tanks for off-site disposal, containerizing the drained rocket warheads for later destruction, and transporting the rocket motors to Alabama for destruction in a Static Detonation Chamber unit. You can read more about the work at BGCAPP here, and you can get a deeper dive into the chemical weapons destruction process here.

Schar School Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop: July 19-21

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

Pandora Report: 07.09.2021

This week’s Pandora Report kicks off with recommendations to enhance biosafety and biosecurity at laboratories working with deadly pathogens, from Biodefense Program students Joseph Rodgers (PhD) and Minh Ly (alumnus) and our Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz. We also take a look at the debate heating up around COVID-19’s origins, Syria’s controversial election to the WHO Executive Board, and a Chinese gene company that is gathering data from pregnant women in 52 countries. Finally, we have a round-up of informative events coming up in the next few weeks, as well as a podcast recommendation if you’ve got any long commutes or summer road trips planned.

Ensuring Biosafety and Biosecurity When Working with Deadly Pathogens

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, have partnered with Biodefense PhD student Joseph Rodgers and Biodefense Master’s Program alumnus Minh Ly to further explore the risks associated with the proliferation of research labs that work on the world’s deadliest pathogens, Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs. Since 2001, the perception of biological risks from terrorist attacks and emerging infectious diseases has led to a “global construction boom of research labs,” with 59 BSL-4 labs in 23 countries. And the authors predict that this trend will continue, particularly because “as scientists seek to better understand viruses like the one that causes COVID-19, they will likely need more labs tailor-made for work with risky germs.”

To reduce the risk of laboratory accidents and intentional misuse, the authors argue that all countries engaging in high-risk research should adopt international standards of biosafety and biosecurity. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed ISO 35001,  which focuses on management’s role in fostering a culture of biosafety and biosecurity and stresses the need for continuous improvement of practices and processes. The article’s authors recommend all biosafety labs (levels 1 through 4) adhere to ISO 35001. To implement this standard at the international level, countries “must agree on a third-party entity to systematically validate and certify compliance.” You can learn more about their recommendations for this third-party entity here, and you can see Dr. Lentzos’ and Dr. Koblentz’ interactive web-based map of global BSL-4 facilities and biorisk management policies here.

Debate Over the COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory

Speaking of potential misinformation regarding COVID-19, a debate has broken out over the origins of COVID-19. Since SARS-CoV-2 began spreading worldwide, researchers and policymakers have questioned where it came from. There have been two major theories: that SARS-CoV-2 is natural in origin and jumped from an animal to humans in a natural spillover event, or that SARS-CoV-2 resulted from a laboratory accident (or “lab leak”) at the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. Due to scant evidence, few scientists and researchers put much stock in the lab leak theory during the pandemic’s early days. However, in February 2021, the joint WHO-China mission to investigate COVID-19’s origins gave a much-maligned press conference to echo China’s confusing narrative and conclude that the virus most likely “leapt from one animal species to an intermediary animal host in which the virus adapted more before jumping to people.” This investigation also called the lab leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely” – though the next day the WHO Director-General said that no hypotheses had been ruled out. The lab leak theory has gained more traction recently, with President Biden recently ordering the intelligence community (which is currently split over the virus’s origins) to investigate this claim and report back in 90 days.

On Tuesday, a group of virus experts published a letter arguing that “there is substantial body of scientific evidence supporting a zoonotic (animal) origin for SARS-CoV-2” and “there is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin.” The authors point to the “clear epidemiological links to animal markets in Wuhan” and the lack of evidence that any early cases were connected to the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. Two days later, the BMJ published an article by investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker, who argued the lab leak theory “was treated as a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory” by “researchers who were funded to study viruses with pandemic potential.” Thacker calls out Peter Daszak as a key player in this campaign against the lab leak theory. Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization that received U.S. government grants to research viruses for pandemic preparedness and that has subcontracted some of this research out to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak also participated in the WHO-China mission to investigate SARS-COV-2’s origins. (Daszak signed on to a recent letter in The Lancet reaffirming that “the strongest clue from new, credible, and peer-reviewed evidence in the scientific literature is that the virus evolved in nature, while suggestions of a laboratory-leak source of the pandemic remain without scientifically validated evidence that directly supports it in peer-reviewed scientific journals.”) On the same day Thacker’s article was published, the BMJ editor-in-chief also published her support of a “full, open independent investigation into [the pandemic’s] origins,” based on Thacker’s reporting.

We will continue to follow this debate and bring you any updates.

Why Was Syria Just Elected to the WHO’s Executive Board?

Zaher Sahloul, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the president of MedGlobal, argues that the Syrian representative’s recent election to the WHO’s Executive Board is yet another misstep in a troubled year for the WHO. As the Pandora Report covered last week, many perceive that the WHO has been far too deferential to China as China spread disinformation and attempted to obfuscate early information about COVID-19. Now, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been granted a leading role in the WHO despite a list of atrocities including (but not limited to) repeated chemical weapons use, the weaponization of health care, the intentional degradation of health care infrastructure, and attacks on humanitarian targets such as aid convoys. Sahloul contends that the WHO is a “rigid institution disconnected from the field” that “relies on a weird and secretive system that approves a set of consensus candidates that governments within each region put forward via secret ballot.” Consequences of this bureaucratic inflexibility will be a sense of abandonment from Syrian healthcare workers and non-government organizations, as well as the Syrian people who have suffered greatly under Assad. Sahloul fears that this move will also fuel COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy because Syrians already greatly distrust the Assad regime’s health policies—they will now also distrust the WHO’s recommendations on vaccination because the Assad regime has just been rewarded with a WHO leadership role. You can read more in Sahloul’s article here.

Chinese Gene Company with Military Ties Harvesting Data from Pregnant Women

BGI Group, a Chinese gene company with a history of close collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, has been using genetic data acquired from prenatal tests to conduct research on the traits of populations. BGI Group sells non-invasive prenatal tests, “which women take about 10 weeks into a pregnancy to capture DNA from the placenta in the woman’s bloodstream” and which are intended to screen for fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome. These tests also capture the mother’s genetic information and personal details (country, height, and weight). BGI then stores and re-analyzes leftover blood samples and genetic data. BGI uses artificial intelligence to analyze this data, often in collaboration with the country’s military. For example, in one study BGI used a military supercomputer to re-analyze this data and “map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.” Worldwide, over 8 million women in 52 countries have taken these tests, though BGI claims that it only stores location data on women in mainland China. The implications of this type of research are wide-ranging, and U.S. government advisors have been sounding the alarm for years. For example, in March the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has warned that the U.S. should view China’s push toward global dominance in biotechnology and artificial intelligence as a “new kind of national security threat.” You can read the full article here.

COVID-19 By the Numbers

A grim milestone was reached this week: 4 million dead from COVID-19. To put that in context, 64 countries have a population fewer than 4 million. Vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and your community. For example, Maryland has reported that unvaccinated people made up 100% of COVID-19 deaths and a majority of the new cases and hospitalizations last month. As of July 7, 56% of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 67% have received at least one dose. Vaccinations peaked in April and have slowed down through the summer, falling short of President Biden’s goal for 70% of American adults to receive at least one dose by July 4th. There are important regional differences: most Northeast states have reached or exceeded that 70% target, while most Southern states have remained stagnant with vaccination rates around 50-60%. Several factors account for this difference, including logistical challenges, difficulty reaching all communities with effective communications, and individual concerns over the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. The Biden administration laid out their plan to overcome these challenges in the U.S. COVID-19 Global Response and Recovery Framework. Objective 1 is to “accelerate widespread and equitable access to and delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations” by accelerating vaccine and consumables manufacturing, supporting readiness to administer vaccines, expanding access to vaccines, and monitoring and evaluating the safety and effectiveness of vaccination programs. Additionally, the President recently announced new outreach efforts aimed at those who have not been fully vaccinated. These efforts will largely focus on identifying trusted messengers in communities and providing resources local doctors need to fully vaccinate their communities.

Podcast on Aerobiology and War

If you’re one of the many people starting to head back into the office and need something to listen to as you resume your commute, you may be interested in a Listen to History podcast episode that examines the early history of aerobiology and the relationship between public health and militarization. The podcast features Gerard J. Fitzgerald, a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, where his research focuses on aspects of military environmental history involving militarized landscapes, industrialization, public health, and chemical and biological weapons. He is currently completing Turn on the Light: Airborne Disease Control in the United States, 1930-1960, a history of the impact of the contributions of civilian public health research during the interwar period to the origins of the United States biological weapons during World War II. You can listen to the podcast here or find it on Spotify under the episode title Aerobiology and the History of War.

The Biological Weapons Convention Summer Update

The Ninth Review Conference of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is slated to occur this year. Review Conferences are mandated by Article XII of the BWC treaty to review salient issues including operation of the BWC and relevant emerging scientific and technological developments. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research released a report titled Preparing for Success at the Ninth Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference: A Guide to the Issues. The BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) also just released an update on recent and forthcoming work. The 2020 Meetings of Experts were postponed last year due to the pandemic but will be held this year from August 30 through September 8. The ISU has hosted several webinars on cooperation and assistance efforts, science and technology developments, and strengthening national implementation of the BWC. They have also held several workshops to discuss establishing a database to facilitate assistance under the framework of Article VII of the BWC.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network have teamed up to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to find creative answers to the questions: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom? Teams of at least three participants, with members from two or more countries, must submit papers by July 28. Papers may be published online by NTI and GHS, and the winning team will also receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. You can learn more about the competition here.

CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues 2021 Virtual Summer Conference: July 13-14

The Center for Strategic & International Studies Project on Nuclear Issues (CSIS PONI) is holding their virtual summer conference on July 13 and July 14. This conference will feature presentations on the future of arms control, emerging technologies, public opinion perspectives on nuclear weapons, and more. Register for Day 1 here and for Day 2 here.

Webinar on Institutional Strengthening of the BWC: July 14

The Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit will be hosting a webinar on “Institutional Strengthening of the Convention” on July 14 from 13:00 to 14:30 CET (07:00 – 08:30 EST). You can register for this virtual event here.

Webinar on Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerable Populations: July 15

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting their final webinar in a three-part series on Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerable Populations in light of COVID-19. The pandemic has brought to light many issues with disaster preparedness for vulnerable populations. The first webinar focused on disaster planning and response activities (recording available here). The second webinar focused on home health workers who provide services to individuals with disabilities and older adults (information available here). The third webinar will discuss how to incorporate the needs of individuals with disabilities and older adults into disaster planning; you can register for that event on July 15th here.

Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop: July 19-21

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

Pandora Report: 07.02.2021

This week’s Pandora Report is coming in hot, with the latest news and analysis on COVID-19, cyberbiosecurity, nuclear negotiations, and terrorism. Remember to observe the 4th of July safely–emergency room personnel have faced enough challenges recently, let’s all give them a break and celebrate responsibly.

Biodefense Alumni on Innovation, Nuclear Security, and Biological Threats

Biodefense alumni aren’t letting the heat get them down—they’ve published several recent pieces on a range of topics. Dan Gerstein analyzes the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which considers new approaches and investments to increase U.S. innovation and competitiveness. He concludes that while there is much to like in this legislation, as written there are several missed opportunities. Rebecca Earnhardt assesses President Biden’s posture on nuclear security and argues that civil society has a critical role to play by holding policymakers accountable, generating innovative ideas, promoting dialogue, and assisting with nuclear security implementation. Yong-Bee Lim examines U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories’ role in addressing biological threats, as well as the biosecurity challenges they face.

The Latest on COVID-19

The WHO has released new guidance urging everyone—including those fully vaccinated—to wear face masks as we continue to learn more about the Delta variant. However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has so far held off on recommending mask-wearing for vaccinated individuals in the US, saying that vaccinated people “are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States.” Dr. Walensky acknowledges that the WHO is issuing guidance on a worldwide scale, and she does not criticize the WHO (or local U.S. policymakers such as those in Los Angeles) for recommending mask-wearing out of an abundance of caution. You can track the CDC’s latest data on COVID-19 variants here.

Vaccination continues to be your best defense against COVID-19 infection. Recent studies show that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are effective against several variants of concern, including Delta. Biodefense alumnus Saskia Popescu emphasizes the importance of vaccination in a recent New York Times piece: “I encourage people who are vaccinated to trust in the vaccines but be cognizant that new variants will continue to occur where transmission exists.” You can hear much more from Dr. Popescu at the GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop coming up this month—see Events below for more information. And learn more about the lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19 about developing vaccines during a pandemic here.

Exacerbated Inequality During the Pandemic

While COVID-19 is a pressing public health concern, the pandemic has wide-ranging implications that will likely be felt for years after we’ve all gotten the jab and removed our masks. For example, the U.S. has experienced its biggest drop in life expectancy since World War II. This drop is attributable not only to COVID-19 deaths but also to interrupted access to healthcare during the pandemic. Whether that’s delayed preventative checkups, less frequent doctor’s visits to manage chronic diseases, or an inability to get help for addiction or mental health struggles that have become more prevalent during the pandemic, Americans have been unable to access—or have felt unsafe accessing—the healthcare they need. This disparity and others have hit minority communities particularly hard. If you are interested in learning more about systemic racism and U.S. health security during the pandemic, the journal Health Security recently published a special issue on the topic. And GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop faculty member Nicholas Evans argues that “the story of equity in COVID-19…is a story of failure.”

COVID-19 Highlighted the Need for ASPR Reforms

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is making the case for reforming and strengthening the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The ASPR is the principal advisor to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on federal public health and medical preparedness and response for public health emergencies, with responsibilities for medical surge capacity and medical countermeasures. Senator Burr argues that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant gaps in preparedness and response that must be addressed. He makes several recommendations to do so: First, promoting strong, effective leadership and coordination within HHS and across the interagency, particularly with FEMA and DoD. Second, expanding, strengthening, and sustaining public-private partnership in medical supply chain, health care system, and medical countermeasure sectors. And third, leveraging innovation, capacity, and capability improvements to encourage innovation not only in times of crisis, but in a preparedness context as well.

Biosafety, Biosecurity, and COVID-19 Origins

Biosecurity experts are urging Congress to investigate a theory that SARS-CoV-2 (the causative agent of COVID-19) leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Of particular concern are so-called gain of function (GoF) experiments, which alter pathogens’ transmissibility, pathogenesis, or host range. Advocates of increased oversight are concerned that these experiments could lead to future pandemics with pathogens that have been engineered to be more lethal or transmissible to humans. Biodefense Program Director Gregory Koblentz believes that Congress needs to take a more active role in overseeing GoF research, rather than merely paying attention when something goes wrong. Dr. Koblentz is particularly concerned with China’s biosafety system, “because we don’t see the same kind of mechanisms for reporting and accountability in the Chinese biosafety system as we see in the U.S. and other countries.”

Milton Leitenberg, a senior research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, reviews China’s history of obfuscation from the 2002 SARS outbreak (SARS-CoV) to COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), as well as the World Health Organization’s weak response when presented with disinformation. Through this lens, he then examines the evidence in the ongoing debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origins. Leitenberg argues it is plausible that a scientist at one of the Wuhan virology institutes contracted a laboratory acquired infection while working with bat coronaviruses because the institute “had been carrying out GoF research using bat coronaviruses and producing chimeric viruses using seamless, undetectable, molecular genetic technology.” This fact, coupled with the Chinese government’s relentless disinformation campaign regarding SARS-CoV-2, leads Leitenberg to the conclusion that “a government that is not involved in a massive cover-up of some kind would not indulge in such behavior.” The article linked above requires registration on CBRNE World to view, but registration is free.

Interested in learning more? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has put together a list of their best pieces on biosafety and biosecurity, featuring many familiar faces to regular readers of the Pandora Report. Check it out here.

New Tool: The Dual-Use Quickscan

The Netherlands Biosecurity Office has just launched the Dual-Use Quickscan tool to identify potential dual-use aspects in research and raise awareness among researchers. Specifically, researchers working with microorganisms can use this tool to assess potential dual-use risks by answering 15 questions. These questions were informed by the scientific literature and encompass three categories: characteristics of the biological agent, knowledge and technology about the agent, and the consequences of misuse. The Quickscan can be embedded in a broader system of biosecurity and dual-use monitoring and awareness within organizations.

Cybersecurity and the Intersection with WMD Threats

For years, government officials, researchers, and policymakers have claimed that cyber threat warnings are blinking red. Recent headlines certainly seem to indicate that we’re under-prepared for many types of cyber-attacks, targeting critical infrastructure, U.S. government data, healthcare systems, and others. Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long and Kyle McPhee review the most pressing infrastructure-related vulnerabilities, many of which are related to cybersecurity. Some have argued that cyber weapons should be considered weapons of mass destruction (WMD) along with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (CBRN). However, Shane Smith, senior policy fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, proposes that cyber weapons should not be considered WMD because cyber weapons are significantly different from CBRN weapons in terms of their lethality, mechanisms, historical use, and perceived utility, as well as proliferation challenges. However, Smith identifies several areas of convergence between cyber weapons and traditional WMD that should be considered when developing strategies to counter these threats. For example, cyber weapons could be used against nuclear or chemical plants; against nuclear command, control, and communication systems; or to amplify the consequences of a WMD attack. On the other hand, “cyber weapons could be valuable counterproliferation tools to disrupt or disable adversary WMD programs.”

Cyberbiosecurity is a relatively new concept that “encompasses cybersecurity, cyber-physical security and biosecurity as applied to biological and biomedical-based systems.” The important interrelationship between cybersecurity and biosecurity has been steadily gaining more attention since 2014, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science published a study that, in part, examined security issues related to big data and its relationship to the bioeconomy. Recently, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense held a virtual meeting to discuss current and future cyberbiosecurity threats and vulnerabilities, opportunities and solutions to address these threats, and the federal government’s role in doing so. You can view a recording of the event here.  

For an analysis of the latest threats related to cyberbiosecurity, you may be interested in Threats, Risks and Vulnerabilities at the Intersection of Digital, Bio & Health. This article assesses current and emerging cyberbiosecurity threats, risks, and knowledge gaps, and proposes ways for the public and private sectors to work together to promote legitimate research and development while maintaining an appropriate posture against malicious actors. The article recognizes the complexity of the cyberbiosecurity risk space, encompassing several new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and 3D printing. Multi-disciplinary partnerships will be essential for mounting an effective response that does not overly burden scientific research. Check out the article for the author’s eight recommendations to begin addressing this complex issue.

Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration achieved a nuclear policy win with the extension of the New START treaty through 2026. Secretary of State Blinken has now turned his attention to reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. The U.S. and France have attempted to increase pressure on Iran by warning that time to return to the nuclear deal is running out, while President Biden declared that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on his watch.

A number of issues complicate negotiations, including Iran’s presidential election (which just concluded) and recent U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting facilities used by Iran-linked militia groups. A War on the Rocks piece assesses the assumption that Iran wants to rejoin the deal. The authors conclude that the nuclear deal is likely to be revived, based on Iran’s actions as well as the benefits of rejoining the deal. However, Iran-watchers should keep an eye on the new, more conservative Iranian’s president’s approach, key negotiating demands, and Iran’s economic trajectory going forward.

A National Strategy for Domestic Terrorism

The Biden administration recently released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The strategy utilizes the intelligence community’s domestic extremist threat categories: racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists, animal rights/environmental violent extremists, abortion-related violent extremists, and all other domestic terrorism threats. (Clint Watts provides a breakdown of the acronyms du jour in this space, as well as an analysis of the hits and misses in this strategy.)

The strategy is organized around four pillars:

  1. Understand and share domestic terrorism-related information
  2. Prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence
  3. Disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity
  4. Confront long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.

Reception to the strategy has been fairly positive, although extremism experts have pointed out weaknesses, areas for improvement, and potential challenges.

Recently Released Resources on Terrorism

The European Union just released its Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, which provides data on terrorist attacks as well as terrorism-related arrests from 2020. The report highlights several persistent trends, such as youth radicalization, lone attackers who use unsophisticated attack methods, and the internet’s role in recruitment and radicalization. Based on reported data, the number of terrorist attacks has remained stable, though the number of terrorist arrests have dropped significantly, likely because of a shift in law enforcement priorities and resources during the pandemic. Interestingly, the report finds that COVID-19 “did not fundamentally modify core terrorist modi operandi;” while extremists incorporated the pandemic into their narratives, there is from this dataset no evidence that it significantly impacted terrorist operations.

The Financial Action Task Force’s newly released report on Ethnically or Racially Motivated Terrorism Financing looks at extreme right wing groups’ fundraising techniques. While extreme right wing terrorist attacks are largely carried out by self-funded lone actors, FATF’s report attempts to map how extremist groups make and move their money. The most common money-raising methods are donations (crowd-funded and private), group membership fees, commercial activities (merchandise sales, real estate ventures, etc.), and criminal activities. Much of the funding, therefore, comes from licit sources. The report concludes by highlighting the numerous challenges associated with addressing extreme right wing group financing, such as different legal regimes for combating this type of terrorism and inconsistent national designations of extreme right wing groups. Increasing transnational links among these groups necessitates more attention on these issues. However, the report raises far more questions than it answers, and much more work is needed on this topic.

Finally, those interested in counterterrorism will find a recently released free resource incredibly helpful: the Handbook of Terrorism Prevention and Preparedness covers a diverse range of topics, from radicalization to terrorist financing to consequence management and much more.

Event: Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.