Pandora Report: 08.20.2021

In this week’s Pandora Report, we examine the debate over COVID-19 booster shots and global vaccine equity, and we bring you more updates on the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Feeling the pandemic fatigue? Then check out the stories on KGB AIDS disinformation, the new National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin, the Alexey Navalny poisoning, and radioactive Japanese snakes.

COVID-19 Booster Shots and Global Vaccine Equity

U.S. health officials just announced that an additional “booster” shot for COVID-19 mRNA vaccines will be available starting September 20, pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Anyone 18 and older who received a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine will be eligible for a booster dose 8 months after their second dose. People who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine will also likely need a booster shot to prolong the vaccine’s effectiveness and reduce severity of COVID-19 symptoms, but more research is needed before any recommendations are made. These boosters are necessary because the latest data seems to show that COVID-19 vaccines become less effective over time—check out three new studies in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC. However, Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, argues that the data doesn’t necessarily support the conclusion that boosters for the entire U.S. population should be implemented quickly; instead, she argues that “it’s possible the changes in vaccine efficacy may have to do with the changes in behaviors of people.” For example, infection rates began increasing over the summer among vaccinated Americans as mask mandates and other restrictions were lifted and people began resuming their normal routines. Dr. Murray argues that a better strategy is to get as many people fully vaccinated (without boosters) as possible to reduce the virus’s ability to mutate as it spreads quickly through large numbers of unvaccinated people.

While countries like Israel and the U.S. make additional doses of the vaccine available to their populations, others are questioning the morality of this move. Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization emergencies chief, likened the situation to “planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while…leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.” Poorer nations will be unprepared for new and potentially deadlier variants of SARS-CoV-2. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pushed back, saying that the U.S. has the capacity to help other nations while providing boosters to its own citizens. Walensky says the U.S. anticipates giving 100 million booster shots by the end of next year while distributing 200 million vaccine doses worldwide.

Google Developing Vaccine Access Tools

Google is developing a series of new tools to support COVID-19 vaccine access and distribution. For example, the COVID-19 Vaccination Access Dataset “quantifies access to vaccination sites, taking into account travel time via different modes of transportation” using the Google Maps Platform Directions API. This data can help identify areas with insufficient access to vaccines and deploy interventions. This dataset is the source for Ariadne Labs & Boston Children’s Hospital’s new Vaccine Equity Planner dashboard, which “integrates and visualizes the data with other data from relevant COVID-19 sources.” This tool can help identify vaccine deserts, where people have little to no convenient access to vaccines. Google also plans to introduce a COVID-19 Vaccination Search Insights tool to help explore the needs and trends of local communities.

COVID-19: Data Dereliction and the Summer Surge

Booster shots were the big COVID-19 story of the week, but a few other important stories made this news this week as well. Hospitals in the U.S. are in “crisis mode” amidst a summer surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Last week, all but four states experienced double-digit growth in COVID-19 hospitalizations. And eight states saw more than 400 new inpatients in a single week. The CDC is under fire for its slow pace collecting and sharing information, particularly on the delta variant: while data from May and June indicated that the delta variant would likely slow progress against COVID-19, the CDC’s failure to use and share real-time data led the Biden administration to paint an “overly rosy assessment of vaccine effectiveness.” A 6-month Politico investigation gets into the data details, finding delays in reporting COVID test results, arcane computer programs that impeded data collection, and severely understaffed contact tracing programs. To attempt to fill these data gaps, the CDC is developing the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to focus on real-time information sharing to trigger governmental, private sector, and public actions in anticipation of domestic and global health threats.

Several recent articles shine a light on second-order effects of the pandemic. For example, a Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 1 in 7 residents of the D.C. area moved during the pandemic, either temporarily or permanently. Just under half said they moved because of COVID-19 or reasons related to the pandemic. Another 23% of residents said they have seriously considered moving because of the pandemic (and the ability to work remotely). Similarly, U.S. Census Bureau data shows a migration out of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas into smaller regions during the pandemic. Nearly a third of workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemic. Reportedly, “the pandemic altered how they think about what is important in life and their careers.” And a new article from PLOS One conducts a systematic review of mental health among healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups during the pandemic, finding that there is currently a research gap on mental health interventions and impacts during COVID-19.

Updates on the Origins of SARS-CoV-2

Continuing to wade through the murky waters of SARS-CoV-2’s origins, the World Health Organization put out a statement on August 12 on advancing the next series of studies to find the virus’s origins. The WHO statement calls for countries to work together without pointing fingers or using the investigation to settle political scores. (For more on origin obfuscation with a political motive, check out this article from Nicholas Wade.) They anticipate that the upcoming studies would “include a further examination of the raw data from the earliest cases and sera from potential early cases in 2019.” The WHO also stood up the International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) to advise the WHO on the development of a global framework to systematically study future emerging pathogens with pandemic potential.

A new study by Chinese researchers examines gaps and weaknesses in biosafety in provincial CDC laboratories. Specifically, researchers randomly selected 208 laboratory staff from 7 provincial CDCs to complete a self-administered survey to test biosafety awareness. While several characteristics (such as years of laboratory experience and laboratory funding) influenced respondents’ scores, overall “the biosafety knowledge, education, and training of CDC laboratory staff involved in pathogen detection need to improve by paying attention to the content and coverage of biosafety training, exploring new training modalities, and increasing funding for activities related to biosafety in CDC.” You can read the article pre-print here.

This research highlights potential lab safety gaps that could have contributed to a laboratory leak of SARS-CoV-2—though this article does not provide any direct evidence for the lab leak theory. However, Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Dr. Filippa Lentzos recently argued that “whether COVID came from a leak or not, it’s time to talk about lab safety.” Even if a lab leak isn’t determined to be the cause of our current pandemic, global lab safety gaps must be addressed to ensure inadequate biosafety isn’t the cause of a future pandemic.

Taking Stock of the Strategic National Stockpile

Although SARS-CoV-2 was a novel virus and the world had no immunity against it, we were not entirely unprepared for a pandemic, even from an emerging infectious disease. For decades, the U.S. has conducted exercises, invested in research and development for relevant technologies, and stockpiled medical supplies to prepare for a pandemic. However, a new article from the Institute for National Strategic Studies argues that the U.S.’s approach to preparing for a pandemic is outdated, from its biotechnology tools and platforms to its approach to the medical supply system. The authors examine the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) as an example of this antiquated approach. The SNS was created in 1998 as a surge capacity to provide a “stop-gap, short-term back up to individual states’ stockpiles” and house specialized medicines to protect against biological and chemical attacks (countermeasures that pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t produce otherwise). The authors argue that the U.S. needs a “modernized biotechnology construct for the SNS…that features agility and flexibility, that could meet a broader range of threats…and [that] takes advantage of the biotechnology revolution.” You can read the article here.

Planning for Pandemic Prevention

Although COVID has been called a “once in a generation” pandemic, many claim that pandemics caused by emerging infectious diseases will become all too common as globalization, international travel, and climate change create new conditions that allow these diseases to find a human host and rapidly spread. Though there is widespread consensus on the importance of preparing for future pandemics, the proposed approaches vary. Rear Admiral Kenneth Bernard (USPHS, Ret.) has argued that “battling a pandemic is a special kind of war” and should be treated (and defeated) as such.  This means developing a national command, control, and operational structure and capabilities to deal with biothreats (natural, accidental, or intentional), applying a military blueprint to a civilian command structure. Bernard praises Biden’s appointment of a Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council but believes this approach needs to be taken further.

A public health oriented approach is the more traditional method for pandemic preparedness. Along these lines, a new report from Harvard’s Scientific Task Force argues that research and investment should be focused on stopping the spillover of animal pathogens to humans—preventing human pandemics at the animal source. An estimated 50% of emerging infectious diseases over the past 50 years originated in wildlife (including HIV, H1N1, SARS, and Zika). Additionally, the rate at which new diseases have emerged is increasing, mainly driven by deforestation, wild animal trade, and industrial animal farms. Yet the world currently spends less than $4 billion per year addressing these drivers of spillover. Investments in conservation, biosecurity, and intergovernmental partnerships around spillover risk could help stop the spread of a virus before it reaches pandemic proportions.

Was the 1889-1891 “Russian Flu” Actually an Early Coronavirus Pandemic?

A recent study in Microbial Biotechnology uses contemporary medical reports from Britain and Germany on patients suffering from a pandemic infection in 1889-1891 to assess whether this pandemic—historically attributed to influenza—was actually an early coronavirus pandemic. The patients experienced many symptoms characteristic of coronavirus infection, including “multisystem affections comprising respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms including loss of taste and smell perception; a protracted recovery resembling long covid and pathology observations of thrombosis in multiple organs, inflammation and rheumatic affections.” Additionally, mortality rates were high among elderly patients while children experienced much less severe infections—a pattern common to COVID infections but not to influenza. Finally, “contemporary reports noted trans-species infection between pet animals or horses and humans, which would concur with a cross-infection by a broad host range bovine coronavirus dated by molecular clock arguments to an about 1890 cross-species infection event.” You can read the article here.

New National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin

The Department of Homeland Security released an updated NTAS Bulletin on August 13 regarding the “current heightened threat environment” in the U.S. The bulletin outlines threats from “domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.” Several upcoming dates could be exploited by extremist actors for their symbolism, including the anniversary of the September 11th attacks and several religious holidays. The bulletin also emphasizes that extremist actors are “increasingly exploiting online forums to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and promote violent activity.” Additionally, these threats have been exacerbated by conditions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including “grievances over public health safety measures and perceived government restrictions.” You can read the bulletin here.

Operation Denver and the KGB’s AIDS Disinformation Campaign

A new article from Douglas Selvage in the Journal of Cold War Studies shows “how the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi) came to play a key role in the disinformation campaign launched by the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) in 1983 regarding the origins of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).” From the abstract: “The KGB launched the campaign itself, but in the mid-1980s it sought to widen the effort by enlisting the cooperation of intelligence services in other Warsaw Pact countries, especially the Stasi. From the autumn of 1986 until November 1989, the Stasi played a central role in the disinformation campaign. Despite pressure from the U.S. government and a general inclination of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to curtail the campaign by the end of 1987, both the KGB and the USSR’s official Novosti press agency continued until 1989 to spread false allegations that HIV was a U.S. biological weapon. Even after the KGB curtailed its disinformation in 1989, the Stasi continued to disseminate falsehoods, not least because it had successfully maintained plausible deniability regarding its role in the campaign. The Stasi worked behind the scenes to support the work of Soviet–East German scientists Jakob Segal and Lilli Segal and to facilitate dissemination of the Segals’ views in West Germany and Great Britain, especially through the leftwing media, and to purvey broader disinformation about HIV/AIDS by attacking U.S. biological and chemical weapons in general.”

The article takes a deep dive into one example of disinformation in the form of allegations of biological weapons development, but history certainly has other examples, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article is the second part of a series. You can read part I here and part II here.

Biological Threat Advisory Board for Heat Biologics Welcomes New Board Members

Heat Biologics, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on developing first-in-class therapies to modulate the immune system, has announced two new additions to its newly formed Biothreat Advisory Board: Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Andrew C. Weber, Former Assistance Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs. They join David Lasseter, Former Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Former Representative Jack Kingston on the board. You can read more about the board and its members here.

European Union Statement on the Anniversary of Navalny’s Poisoning

The European Union Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy released a statement in advance of the one year anniversary of Alexey Navalny’s poisoning with a military chemical nerve agent. Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with Novichok, which was “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” The statement calls for the Russian Federation to “investigate this assassination attempt in full transparency and without further delay, and to fully cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to ensure an impartial international investigation.”

Scientist Really Thought Job Would Be Less Grant Writing and More Glow-in-the-Dark Lizard Making

A lighthearted take for your Friday from The Onion: “As she settled in Friday for another long night of onerous paperwork, local scientist Dr. Rudha Zarah told reporters that when she accepted her research position, she had envisioned herself spending a lot less time on grant writing and a lot more time on glow-in-the-dark lizard making. ‘I realize every academic job involves some administrative work, but come on—I’ve been here eight months now, and I haven’t created a single lizard with bright neon pink, blue, or purple skin,’ said the 34-year-old postdoctoral fellow, lamenting the fact that the state-of-the-art genetics laboratory she worked in had ‘a perfectly good CRISPR machine collecting dust’ while she filled out page after page of funding requests that had nothing to do with glow-in-the-dark lizards. ‘Look at all these forms! This is ridiculous. I didn’t get a PhD in bioengineering just to sit behind a desk all day. I got it to pursue my dreams of tinkering with DNA until I gave life to a phosphorescent iguana with a few extra legs and eyebrows and maybe even wings. Unfortunately, it could be a decade or more before I make tenure and am able to spend my time dunking reptiles in uranium until they start to pulsate in otherworldly colors.’ At press time, Zarah confirmed she had been pleasantly surprised to learn Stanford’s institutional review board had signed off on her proposal to genetically engineer a 16-eyed, hyperintelligent human-koala hybrid.”

Radioactive Snakes May Monitor Fukushima Fallout

The article above may be satirical, but the fictional Dr. Zarah would love to work on a project recently reported in Ichthyology and Herpetology. Fukushima’s native rat snakes seem able to act as living monitors of radiation levels in the region where, a decade ago, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced a catastrophic meltdown. There is a high correlation between levels of radiocesium (a radioactive isotope of cesium) in the snakes and environmental radiation levels. The rat snakes have relatively small home ranges and don’t travel far outside their neighborhood; they are also susceptible to accumulating radionuclides. These features make them excellent bioindicators—animals whose health provides insight into environmental health. You can read more about this work here.

Webinar: The New IPCC Climate Report, August 25

Global warming due to human use of fossil fuel is now undeniable, as affirmed in the latest Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Virginians are not exempt from the ongoing changes – there will be a new normal, and we all need to prepare for it. Knowing where, when, and by how much our accustomed climate will change is critically important to plan for the coming decades. An upcoming seminar will explain why and how climate is changing, the impacts on our Commonwealth and the world, and possible responses. People alive today may include the last generation that can take action to avoid the most dire consequences – it’s time to learn more about the climate crisis and what we can do about it. You can register for the webinar, being held August 25 at 1pm, here.

Webinar: Red Teaming the Post-COVID-19 Biological Weapon Threat, August 26

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented global disruption, including loss of life, economic crises, and political disagreements. Beyond these short- and medium-term challenges, the pandemic may have shifted the strategic dynamics surrounding biological weapons (BW). Will some leaders be more likely to put their countries on the path to pursuing biological weapons? Will the pandemic make other countries even less interested in having anything to do with biological weapons? To examine these questions, the National Defense University Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction is hosting a webinar on August 26. Speakers include Gary Ackerman and Ted Plasse. They will describe a project that utilized Asynchronous Strategic Dynamics Red Teaming (ASDyRT) to investigate the extent to which COVID-19 might impact the strategic decision making of 30 states that currently do not possess an offensive BW program, to examine the decision elements that might precipitate changes in current strategic BW decisions by state leaders, and to explore the operational characteristics of any new programs. Results and the implications for BW monitoring, defense, and nonproliferation will be discussed. You can register for the webinar here.

Virtual Workshop: Towards a Post-Pandemic World, September 21-24

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting the second of a two-part series about what we’ve learned since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Presentations will examine responses to COVID-19 in the U.S. and abroad, featuring retrospective and prospective discussions on the impacts of the pandemic on human health and society and with a view towards enhancing resilience and preparedness for the future. The workshop will take place over four days and focus on a broad range of topics:

  • Sept 21: Anticipated Long-Term Effects of COVID-19
  • Sept 22: Addressing Uncertainties During a Pandemic
  • Sept 23: Mitigating the Next Pandemic through Current Recovery
  • Sept 24: Potentials for a Post-COVID World (Scenario Planning Exercise)

Each day’s session runs from 10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. EDT. You can register here.

Virtual Conference: Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet) invites you to attend the 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference, taking place virtually from September 23 to October 14. The conference will convene international scientific experts from government, academia, and industry under the overarching theme of Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and expertise, disseminate findings from ongoing research, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world. The conference will consist of presentations and panel discussions in four sessions:

  • September 23: Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens
  • September 30: BSL3 and BSL4 Biosafety and Biosecurity: International Perspectives
  • October 7: One Health Perspectives
  • October 14: Zoonotic Outbreaks and Pandemics: Science Policy and Science Diplomacy

Registration opens August 16. Get more information here

Pandora Report: 08.13.2021

This week’s Pandora Report covers the full CBRN spectrum, from Syrian chemical weapons to the National Biodefense Strategy, and from Russian radiation combat skills training to North Korean nuclear provocation. We also look at other catastrophic risks, including a recent report on climate change. And if you’re looking to fill up your calendar for fall, don’t miss the list of upcoming events.

The Debate Continues: Origins of COVID-19

We have been covering developments in the investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 for weeks. Two recent articles take up this ongoing debate. Dr. Nicholas G. Evans and Anna Muldoon reject the idea that a lab accident associated with gain-of-function research experiments caused the COVID-19 pandemic. “Gain-of-function research” refers to research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent. While the U.S. government did fund experiments that manipulated coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, those experiments don’t qualify as gain-of-function research, and there is no evidence that the manipulated pathogens caused the pandemic. Evans and Muldoon break down the origins of the theory, its many permutations, and why it is an unlikely explanation for COVID-19; you can read more here.

Dr. Andrew Lakoff also tackles whether COVID-19 was the result of a lab leak, rather than a natural spillover event where a virus jumps from animals to humans. The lab leak hypothesis has been able to gain ground in part because scientists have so far been unable to identify the intermediary host animal that could confirm the spillover hypothesis. This uncertainty leads to “a situation of diagnostic uncertainty, both about how to attribute blame and about the horizon of future reform.” Lakoff frames this uncertainty as part of a larger question about laboratory safety and the trade-offs between advancing knowledge to protect from future pandemics and the risks associated with intentional or unintentional spillage of dangerous pathogens from research labs. You can read Lakoff’s piece here.

On Thursday, remarks from a WHO official added a twist to this ongoing conversation. For context, in 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a joint investigation with China into the virus’s origins. The team’s report, released in February 2021, concluded that a leak of the virus from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was “extremely unlikely” to be the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the WHO chief has recently commented that a lab leak cannot yet be entirely ruled out as a source of the pandemic because of China’s lack of transparency on the issue. Now, new commentary from Ben Embarek, the head of this joint investigation, is raising even more questions about COVID-19’s origin story. In an interview for a Danish TV station’s documentary, Embarek expressed concerns about safety standards at a laboratory close to the seafood market where the first human cases of COVID-19 were detected. Embarek claims that the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention was handling coronaviruses “without potentially having the [appropriate] level of expertise or safety.” Embarek also said that the possibility of a lab staffer being infected with the coronavirus while collecting bat samples was “likely.”

Schar School Polling on COVID-19 Behaviors Featured in the Washington Post

The latest Schar School-Washington Post polling results are out, examining attitudes toward daily activities in light of the latest COVID-19 developments. Persistent coronavirus concerns and growth in remote work among D.C.-area residents during the pandemic may work against the comeback of downtown D.C. and other commercial districts in the region. And some residents “express hesitancy in returning to their pre-pandemic work and commuting lives when the pandemic eventually ends, likely fueling a disruption in the rhythm of traffic and mass transit.” Some interesting poll findings include:

  • About 4 in 10 area residents expressed virus-related concerns about attending crowded indoor gatherings
  • About 2 in 10 residents said they are concerned about dining indoors
  • About 2 in 10 residents also say they will ride metro often (including roughly 3 in 10 of those who rode at least weekly before the pandemic)
  • Workers are mixed on whether they want to return to their workplaces (and how often)

Want to learn more? You can check out the poll crosstabs here.

This Week in COVID-19

A new story in the Washington Post highlights the rise of the more contagious delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, which now accounts for over 93% of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. Whereas outbreaks of the delta variant used to be concentrated in poorly vaccinated pockets, two-thirds of Americans in highly vaccinated counties now live in COVID-19 hot spots. The delta variant has changed calculations for what is needed to end the pandemic: “Epidemiologists had hoped getting 70 or 80 percent of the population vaccinated, in combination with immunity from natural infections, would bring the virus under control. But a more contagious virus means the vaccination target has to be much higher, perhaps in the range of 90 percent.” Given the current state of vaccine inequities, vaccine hesitancy, and blatant mis- and disinformation, such a target could take years to achieve.

Employers are revisiting their policies on vaccination, masking, and other requirements. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mandated that all District government employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 by September 19. Anyone with a religious or medical exemption will be required to submit a weekly COVID test. Similarly, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is seeking a mandate to require that all service members get the COVID-19 vaccine by mid-September—a date that could be moved up sooner if a vaccine receives full approval from the FDA.

As students prepare to return to school, only about 4 in 10 adolescents (age 12-17) have been vaccinated. Therefore, safety measures like masks, social distancing, and sanitation will be key. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published guidance to improve indoor ventilation in schools to help reduce COVID-19 transmission. Tips include upgrading air filtration so that HVAC systems can bring in as much outdoor air as possible and adding HEPA air filtration units. The guidance also warns against unproven technologies such as ozone generators, ionization, and air disinfection with chemical foggers and sprays. You can check out the full report here or a graphic summary here.

Hospitals in some U.S. states with low vaccination rates are reaching capacity with COVID-19 patients infected with the delta variant. Hospitalizations tend to be significantly higher in U.S. states with large numbers of unvaccinated people. The graphic from Statista below shows this trend. Out of the five least vaccinated states, four (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas) are experiencing elevated levels of hospitalizations. Wyoming also has a high level of unvaccinated people, but the state’s relatively sparse population density may afford it some natural level of protection against viral spread. States with vaccination rates of 60% or higher are not experiencing these dangerous surges of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

U.S. Scientist Settles Whistleblower Complaint Over COVID Treatments

Last April, Dr. Rick Bright was removed from his position as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) after he pressed for rigorous vetting of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that Trump had wrongly touted as a treatment for COVID-19. Dr. Bright filed a whistleblower complaint against the federal government for his termination; that complaint was recently settled, and Dr. Bright will receive back pay and compensation for “emotional stress and reputational damage.” The Biden administration confirmed the settlement and praised Dr. Bright, who had advised President Biden during his transition.

The National Biodefense Strategy and Opportunities to Strengthen Preparedness

In 2018, the Trump Administration released the National Biodefense Strategy. The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) just published a review of the key accomplishments and future priorities under this strategy, which “aims to advance the U.S. health security enterprise through prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts to combat infectious disease and biological threats.” Key accomplishments include a clinical trial for a universal flu vaccine, improvements to biosafety and biosecurity communications and guidance, launching of the Antimicrobial Resistance Challenge, and a range of activities in response to COVID-19. You can read more here.

Under the CARES Act, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was charged with conducting monitoring and oversight of federal efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from COVID-19. A new GAO study reviewed biological incident plans and after-action reports from exercises and real-world incidents from 2009-2019 to assess (1) interagency plans key federal agencies developed, and exercises they conducted, to help prepare for biological incidents and (2) the extent to which exercises and real-world incidents revealed opportunities to better achieve National Biodefense Strategy objectives. Based on this analysis, GAO made four recommendations each to the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. These recommendations center on agencies working with the Biodefense Steering Committee to communicate exercise priorities and conduct monitoring. You can read the report here.

Coming in Hot: Bad News from the IPCC Report on Climate Change 2021

Recent findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are a “code red for humanity,” according to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. The report provides climate projections for the 21st century, and things aren’t looking good. Climate change has already caused significant damage via droughts, heat waves, extreme rainfall, fires, and other extreme weather events. Now, the world is currently on track to surpass the warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next 15 years. Once this threshold is crossed, extreme weather events will become more severe and rising sea levels and increasing glacial melt will have catastrophic effects. A dedicated, global effort is needed to stave off the worst effects. Greenhouse gas emissions must be sharply slashed. If global emissions can hit net zero by 2050, then we should be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. You can read the report here and check out a discussion of the science behind the report here. This report is sure to surface again at the U.N. Climate Change Conference scheduled for November 2021.

Can Parasitic Worms Protect against Chemical and Biological Weapons?

Researchers at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine are capitalizing on recent advances in genetic modification using CRISPR-Cas9 and studying whether the helminth genome can produce therapeutic molecules to protect humans against chemical and biological agents. Helminths are parasitic worms that live inside the human body. The intent of this project is to “reduce the burden of soldiers and medical responders who have to wear personal protective equipment when at risk of chemical or biological attack.” You can read more about the research here.

North Korea Conducting Tests at Nuclear Reactor Site

A draft U.N. report states that North Korea has conducted tests at the Yongbyon nuclear complex between December 2020 and February 2021. North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs despite the economic struggles it has faced during the pandemic. The report notes that “the external construction of a light water reactor seems to be complete” and “installation of machinery is likely to be in progress.” However, the 5 MW reactor at Yongbyon has shown no signs of operating since 2018. The report also describes how rampant smuggling and other illicit activities allow North Korea to skirt the U.N. economic embargo. You can read Nikkei’s summary of the draft report here; the final report will be released in September 2021.

The United States and South Korea will hold military exercises on August 16-26 this year. Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, called these exercises an “invasion rehearsal” and warned that this will motivate North Korea to work faster to strengthen its preemptive strike capabilities. These developments don’t bode well for the Biden administration’s desire to resume nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.

Russian Soldiers Conduct Exercises in a Simulated Radioactive Contaminated Warzone

Russian troops recently conducted an exercise simulating an enemy attack using weapons of mass destruction that resulted in radiological contamination. The exercise was based in the Pechenga Valley, near the Russia-Norway border. Troops practiced detecting, measuring, treating, and decontaminating personnel and military vehicles. Read more about this exercise, and watch a YouTube video of the exercise released by the Russian military, here.

WHO Seeking Experts for Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research

The WHO is seeking experts to serve as members of the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research (ACCVR). The ACCVR was established in 1999 to advise the WHO on the research needed to reach global consensus on the destruction of existing variola stocks and develop a research plan for priority work on the virus. The ACCVR meets annually to provide oversight of this research agenda. The WHO is seeking experts to fill gaps in knowledge about new biotechnologies and public health preparedness measures that would apply to a potential re-emergence of smallpox. You can read more about the committee here.

UN: Work Still Remains on Destruction of Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Last week, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs updated ambassadors on the latest developments under Resolution 2118, which calls for Syria to cooperate with the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. Resolution 2118 was adopted in 2013, and 8 years later, “there is still work to be done” before the resolution can be considered fully implemented. The briefing included discussions on re-establishing the norm against chemical weapons, the postponement of an OPCW Declaration Assessment Team visit to Syria, the incomplete nature of Syria’s chemical weapons declaration, and the June 8 attack on a Syrian military installation that housed a declared former chemical weapons production facility. You can read more about these issues here.

Medicine Manufacturing Limits Puts U.S. Health Security at Risk

A new study from the Center for Analytics and Business Insights has found that in the United States, no manufacturing source exists for more than 80% of the active ingredients in medicines that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deems essential for public health (such as antibiotics, antivirals, blood pressure pills, and steroids). The U.S. is incredibly reliant on foreign production of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs); the pandemic has highlighted this reliance on long, complex supply chains. The majority of large-scale API manufacturing sites are in India and China (less than 5% of sites are in the U.S.). The graphic below summarizes the dearth of U.S. sources for several key medicines, and you can read more on this study here.

Veterinary Intelligence: Integrating Zoonotic Threats into Global Health Security

A new article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine argues that a One Health approach to zoonotic disease threats is an integral element of the global health security architecture. Recent experiences with COVID-19, Ebola, and other emerging infectious diseases highlights the “systematic disregard of zoonotic disease within what still remains a predominantly human-centric public health approach.” The authors argue that medical and veterinarian communities should be “synergistic collaborators” in outbreak response; veterinary intelligence is a critical but neglected component of health security intelligence. The goal end state is a “systematized health security intelligence framework [that] opens up horizons for a more holistic disease preparedness system, able to detect and respond to an array of infectious disease threats…whether they emerge in animals or humans.” You can read more here.

Webinar: Reviewing the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise, August 13

An ad hoc committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a study to evaluate existing Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasure Enterprise (PHEMCE) policy and practices and make recommendations for a re-envisioned PHEMCE, particularly after COVID-19. This review will provide high-level strategic guidance to the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) on emerging issues, research, and activities relevant to the PHEMCE programs, goal, and activities. The committee will review key materials from ASPR and provide recommendations on business practices, medical countermeasure preparedness, and conduct an enterprise-wide review of programs, priorities, and harmonization across agencies.

The first event was held on August 6, but on August 13, from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m., the committee will have an opportunity to engage in discussions with ASPR regarding key public documents, as well as hear from different former members of the Enterprise Senior Council, the body that provides strategic direction and policy oversight for HHS in Medical Countermeasure preparedness activities, and other key PHEMCE partners and stakeholders. Register for the August 13 session here.

Webinar: Red Teaming the Post-COVID-19 Biological Weapon Threat, August 26

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented global disruption, including loss of life, economic crises, and political disagreements. Beyond these short- and medium-term challenges, the pandemic may have shifted the strategic dynamics surrounding biological weapons (BW). Will some leaders be more likely to put their countries on the path to pursuing biological weapons? Will the pandemic make other countries even less interested in having anything to do with biological weapons? To examine these questions, the National Defense University Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction is hosting a webinar on August 26. Speakers include Gary Ackerman and Ted Plasse. They will describe a project that utilized Asynchronous Strategic Dynamics Red Teaming (ASDyRT) to investigate the extent to which COVID-19 might impact the strategic decision making of 30 states that currently do not possess an offensive BW program, to examine the decision elements that might precipitate changes in current strategic BW decisions by state leaders, and to explore the operational characteristics of any new programs. Results and the implications for BW monitoring, defense, and nonproliferation will be discussed. You can register for the webinar here.

Virtual Workshop: Towards a Post-Pandemic World, September 21-24

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting the second of a two-part series about what we’ve learned since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Presentations will examine responses to COVID-19 in the U.S. and abroad, featuring retrospective and prospective discussions on the impacts of the pandemic on human health and society and with a view towards enhancing resilience and preparedness for the future. The workshop will take place over four days and focus on a broad range of topics:

  • Sept 21: Anticipated Long-Term Effects of COVID-19
  • Sept 22: Addressing Uncertainties During a Pandemic
  • Sept 23: Mitigating the Next Pandemic through Current Recovery
  • Sept 24: Potentials for a Post-COVID World (Scenario Planning Exercise)

Each day’s session runs from 10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. EDT. You can register here.

Virtual Conference: Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges, September 23-October 14

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet) invites you to attend the 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference, taking place virtually from September 23 to October 14. The conference will convene international scientific experts from government, academia, and industry under the overarching theme of Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and expertise, disseminate findings from ongoing research, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world. The conference will consist of presentations and panel discussions in four sessions:

  • September 23: Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens
  • September 30: BSL3 and BSL4 Biosafety and Biosecurity: International Perspectives
  • October 7: One Health Perspectives
  • October 14: Zoonotic Outbreaks and Pandemics: Science Policy and Science Diplomacy

Registration opens August 16. Get more information here

Pandora Report: 08.06.2021

This week, we cover Chinese nuclear missile silo construction, effective risk communication, the ethics of forensic genetics, and of course, updates on COVID-19. We also feature an article from Biodefense M.S. student Michelle Grundahl on how a Pennsylvania County Animal Response Team implemented a One Health approach to community assistance during COVID-19. And a big congratulations to HyunJung Kim, who just successfully defended his Biodefense doctoral dissertation.

Congratulations to Dr. HyunJung Kim

HyunJung Kim successfully defended his Biodefense doctoral dissertation, “Use of Unapproved Medical Countermeasures During Public Health Emergencies: Comparing the United States and South Korea,” on August 4. When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the United States and South Korea were among the only countries in the world with Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) policies to provide large-scale access to unapproved medical countermeasures, such as vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic kits, in the event of a public health emergency. HyunJung argues that these policies were heavily influenced by major crises that each nation suffered and that the policy domains that resulted from these crises shaped the implementation of EUA policy, even during the pandemic.

According to HyunJung, the U.S. EUA policy that emerged in the wake of 9/11 and Amerithrax was part of the new homeland security policy domain while in Korea, the EUA policy that followed the 2015 MERS outbreak was part of the disease containment domain. These different policy domains help explain why EUA policy in both countries diverged and affected each nations response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the United States and South Korea each issued their first EUA for an in vitro diagnostic kit to detect SARS-CoV-2 on the same day (February 4, 2020), there were dramatic differences in the ability of each country to institute large-scale testing programs. While South Korea embarked on a major national campaign to ramp up testing, the United States struggled to develop a reliable test and deploy it widely. The pandemic, in effect, provided a “stress test” for the EUA policies in each country. As HyunJung’s work shows, the U.S. EUA policy was hampered by its homeland security-centric focus on post-exposure prophylaxis whereas the Korean EUA policy that evolved as part of the disease containment domain was better suited for the rapid roll-out of diagnostic tests and integration of these tests into the nations’ public health response to the pandemic. This dissertation contains valuable lessons learned from the U.S. and South Korean experiences that could be used to provide best practices to governments around the world for implementing their own EUA policies to strengthen their preparedness for public health emergencies.

A One Health Approach to Community Assistance During COVID-19

Biodefense M.S. student Michelle Grunhdal is featured in the Summer 2021 One Health newsletter from the Veterinary Public Health (VPH) Special Primary Interest Group (SPIG) of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Grundahl writes about her experience providing community assistance as part of the Pennsylvania County Animal Response Team (CART) during COVID-19. The CART worked alongside food banks to provide pet food to households experiencing food insecurity and “created new local paradigms where emergency management, human social services and local animal welfare groups came together.” This One Health approach has led to permanent changes in the community. You can read the full newsletter here.  

COVID-19 Update: Policies and Pushback

A grim statistic: the known total of global COVID-19 cases has surpassed 200 million. The CDC has updated their guidance on mask wearing and COVID-19 testing in response to the latest data on the delta variant. It is now recommended that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission or if they or someone in their household is at increased risk for severe disease from COVID-19, as we reported last week. Universal indoor masking is recommended for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools regardless of vaccination status. Additionally, fully vaccinated people—even if they’re not showing symptoms—should get tested 3 to 5 days after exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days after exposure or until they receive a negative test result. Previous recommendations said that fully vaccinated people didn’t need testing after exposure unless they showed symptoms.

People around the world are pushing back against more restrictive public health measures as countries try to encourage vaccination through public policy. In Germany, Berlin has refused to authorize over a dozen anti-lockdown protests, citing rising infection rates and protesters’ history of flouting public health requirements, such as mask-wearing. Also in Germany, officials are planning to stop paying for rapid antigen COVID-19 tests after enough Germans have been fully vaccinated. Currently, Germans must show a negative COVID-19 test to enter offices and some shops and restaurants, and testing is free. Taking a different approach toward encouraging vaccination, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte recently addressed the nation, telling citizens: “For those who do not want [the COVID-19 vaccine], well, for all I care, you can die anytime.”

The Latest on COVID-19 Vaccines

Last week’s CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported that nearly three-quarters of people infected in a July COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts were fully vaccinated. A total of 469 patients were identified; 90% of specimens from these patients contained the delta variant. The CDC also found that fully vaccinated people who become infected carry as much of SARS-CoV-2 in their nose as unvaccinated people, and they can spread the virus to others. The media has generally reported this information with more alarmism than scientific perspective: bottom line, the majority of new COVID cases in the U.S. are among unvaccinated people, and the odds of unvaccinated people getting sick from COVID is low. Rachel L. Levine, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, has stressed that this upcoming fall could be “very challenging,” but vaccination remains the best means of protection. Fortunately, U.S. vaccination rates have risen recently amidst fears over the delta variant.

A new paper from Pfizer (which has not yet been peer-reviewed) shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine “remained robustly protective six months after vaccination, providing nearly complete protection against severe disease.” The paper showed a slight drop in efficacy against any symptomatic cases of COVID-19 (from 96% protection in the first few months after vaccination to 84% after four months). Pfizer executives have predicted that vaccine booster shots will be needed. Israel is already offering its most at-risk citizens a third COVID-19 shot, though global health researchers are pushing back, warning that this strategy could set back efforts to end the pandemic because each booster “represents a vaccine dose that could instead go to low- and middle-income countries, where most citizens have no protection at all, and where dangerous coronavirus variants could emerge as cases surge.” The WHO just called for a moratorium for at least the next two months on COVID booster shots based on global vaccine inequity, though the Biden administration has pushed back on this idea.

Two Americans traveling to Toronto have been fined for providing fake COVID-19 proof of vaccination documents and lying about pre-departure tests. In this case, fake vaccination documents are costing roughly $20,000 in fines, while the vaccine itself is free.

In better news, the first phase of an international effort to track COVID-19 vaccines has just been launched by the Task Force on COVID-19 Vaccines, Therapeutics and Diagnostics for Developing Countries (composed of representatives from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank Group, World Health Organization (WHO), and World Trade Organization). The database and dashboard are intended to highlight specific gaps by country in obtaining and delivering COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, building on the IMF-WHO COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Tracker.

Update on COVID-19 Origins

On July 28, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) responded to a request from Senator Grassley (R-IA) regarding SARS-CoV-2’s origins. The NIH’s view, based on the scientific literature, is that “SARS-CoV-2 infection in people most likely resulted from zoonotic transmission from animals to humans.” Current evidence does not support the assertion that the virus was engineered. However, the NIH does not rule out the possibility of a laboratory accident, such as a scenario “where a naturally occurring virus was unintentionally released during research activities such as collection of animal samples or examination of viruses in a laboratory.” This letter also addressed questions about the NIH’s grant review process (particularly a grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology) and how the U.S. government conducts oversight of research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens.

A few days later, a report from Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that “a preponderance of evidence proves that [SARS-CoV-2] leaked from a Chinese research facility” sometime before September 12, 2019. The report claimed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists, supported by U.S. experts and Chinese and U.S. government funding, were working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans. The report’s findings are based on “new and under-reported information about safety protocols at the lab.”

The U.S. intelligence community (IC) has not come to any such conclusions; President Biden ordered the IC’s report on the virus’s origins to be submitted by the end of August. U.S. intelligence agencies just gained access to a massive trove of genetic data from virus samples studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Officials hope this data will help answer the question of how the virus jumped from animals to humans, but they are facing an uphill battle. Translation of the raw data into usable information requires a great deal of computing power and manpower. The IC will be using the Department of Energy’s National Labs’ supercomputers to process the data, but there is a very small pool of scientists with the security clearance, educational background, and Mandarin-language skills necessary to work on this issue.

Interested in a former IC analyst’s perspective on the debate over COVID’s origins? Denis Kaufman, a former top infectious diseases analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Center for Medical Intelligence, was featured on a recent SpyTalk podcast discussing the claim that China engineered COVID-19 for use as a biological weapon. In his words: “It would probably rank, in terms of monumental stupidity, as high as you could get—to release an organism that you have no countermeasures against, that was highly infectious, highly dangerous and highly lethal.”

COVID-19: Unprecedented Event or a Taste of What’s to Come?

President Biden’s science advisor Eric Lander warns that “as bad as COVID-19 has been, a future pandemic could be even worse—unless we act now.” He warns that we’re at risk not only from COVID-19’s effects but from the collective amnesia that often accompanies serious, traumatic events like pandemics. New infectious diseases have been emerging at an accelerating rate, and they spread quickly. Although everyone wants to “return to normal,” we can’t forget the weaknesses, gaps, and inequities COVID-19 exposed. Lander outlines several objectives that must be pursued, including developing the capability to design, test, and improve a vaccine within 100 days of detecting a pandemic threat; investing in early-warning systems to spot emerging biological threats anywhere in the world; and strengthening public health systems. He also says to expect a detailed plan from the White House this month describing the capabilities the United States needs to invest in now to prepare for the next pandemic.

Peter J. Hotez discusses the “troubling new expansion of antiscience aggression,” arising from far-right extremism and targeting prominent figures fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Hotez traces the connections and consistent messaging between conservative news outlets, U.S. Congressmembers, and conservative public intellectuals teaming up to discredit scientists, policymakers, and other experts. Hotez lists several steps to begin combating this aggression; you can read more here.

Mass Resignations at Scientific Journal Over Ethically Fraught China Genetics Papers

Eight members of the editorial board of Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine have resigned after the journal published a series of controversial papers that “critics fear could be used for DNA profiling and persecution of ethnic minorities in China.” These papers were initially flagged by Yves Moreau, a Belgian bioinformatician with a history of pursuing the retraction of troubling or unethical scientific papers. There are several concerns with the batch of papers in question, many of whose authors have affiliations with or received funding from Chinese police agencies. First, the papers all address forensic genetics, a controversial field that applies genetic knowledge to legal issues—a problematic subject in China, “where DNA collection is part of a sustained effort to persecute ethnic minorities and other groups.” Second, there are concerns about whether the DNA samples used for some of the papers were collected with proper consent; Chinese policy have forcibly collected DNA from certain groups in the past. Concerns over the articles were raised in March, and after months of stalled progress to get more information about the journal’s stance, editorial board members began resigning. Other board members who have not resigned have expressed their disapproval but remain on the committee to push for scrutiny of the papers.

Attacks on Health Care Resources

The WHO just released an analysis of the impact of attacks on health care in fragile, conflict-affected, and vulnerable areas from 2018-2020. This data came from the WHO Surveillance Systems for Attacks on Health Care, which tracks attacks on health care, the resources that are affected, and their immediate impact on health workers and patients globally. This analysis found that health personnel are the most frequently affected resource in these attacks; such attacks were associated with a higher proportion of deaths in 2020; changing contexts are an important driver for yearly differences in the data; and reports of attacks involving psychological violence, threats of violence, or intimidations decreased in 2020. The report also makes some conclusions about COVID-19’s impact, including that attacks affecting health facilities, transport, and patients became more frequent after the onset of the pandemic.

Interested in health care facilities and resources as a terrorist target? Then you may be interested in a recent article from Studies in Conflict and Terrorism titled “Hospital Attacks Since 9/11: An Analysis of Terrorism Targeting Healthcare Facilities and Workers.” You can read the article here (access required).

China is Building a Second Nuclear Missile Silo Field

A new report from Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen uses satellite imagery to identify a second nuclear missile silo field being constructed in the prefecture-level city of Hami in Eastern Xinjiang, China. This discovery follows a recent report that China “appears to be constructing 120 missile silos near Yumen in Gansu province.” Construction on the Hami site began in March 2021, and since that time “dome shelters have been erected over at least 14 silos and soil cleared in preparation for construction of another 19 silos.” Taken together, the silo construction in Yumen and Hani “constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever.” The Federation of American Scientists estimates that China’s nuclear arsenal currently includes roughly 350 warheads, though U.S. Department of Defense officials have expressed their belief that China’s stockpile is likely to double (at a minimum) over the next ten years. However, even quadrupling China’s current stockpile would not give China near-parity with Russia and the United States, who each have around 4,000 warheads. You can read the report  on the Hami site and check out the satellite images of the site here.

Image courtesy of Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists

Guiding Principles for Science and Risk Communicators

Syra Madad and Eleanor J. Murray with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs have published guiding principles for science and risk communicators to provide facts, share evidence and science-based information, and manage rumors, misinformation, and disinformation. They argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has “highlighted the critical role of scientific risk communicators and the ability to provide timely, accurate, and comprehensible guidance.” The CDC’s mantra of risk communication is: be first, be right, be credible. Madad and Murray suggest that an updated approach is needed to give a diverse range of communicators simple guidance on risk communication across different forms of media. You can read more and check out their graphic displaying the principles here.

Back to School Biosafety

Research laboratories are unique environments that present specific risks and challenges. Many undergraduates, and even graduate students, lack rigorous instruction in biological safety. Therefore, ABSA International, in partnership with the National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program, is offering training in biological safety for undergraduate and graduate students. The course takes place over 12 weeks, and the course content is designed to be flexible. Some of the topics covered include risk assessment; biosafety levels; personal protective equipment; lab facilities and safety equipment; disinfection, decontamination, and sterilization; and lab security and emergency response. You can learn more about the course here.

Free Resource: Handbook of Terrorism Prevention and Preparedness

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. Edited by Alex P. Schmid and featuring contributions from leading experts in the field, the Handbook is divided into five parts: (1) Lessons for Terrorism Prevention from Related Fields, (2) Prevention of Radicalization, (3) Prevention of Preparatory Acts, (4) Prevention of and Preparedness for Terrorist Attacks, and (5) Preparedness and Consequence Management. The Handbook also features a chapter from Schar School professor Dr. Mahmut Cengiz, titled “Prevention of the Procurement of Arms and Explosives by Terrorists.”

Workshop: Towards a Post-Pandemic World, September 21-24

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting the second of a two-part series about what we’ve learned since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Presentations will examine responses to COVID-19 in the U.S. and abroad, featuring retrospective and prospective discussions on the impacts of the pandemic on human health and society and with a view towards enhancing resilience and preparedness for the future. The workshop will take place over four days and focus on a broad range of topics:

  • Sept 21: Anticipated Long-Term Effects of COVID-19
  • Sept 22: Addressing Uncertainties During a Pandemic
  • Sept 23: Mitigating the Next Pandemic through Current Recovery
  • Sept 24: Potentials for a Post-COVID World (Scenario Planning Exercise)

Each day’s session runs from 10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. EDT. You can register here.

Event: Reviewing the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise, August 6 & 13

An ad hoc committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a study to evaluate existing Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasure Enterprise (PHEMCE) policy and practices and make recommendations for a re-envisioned PHEMCE, particularly after COVID-19. This review will provide high-level strategic guidance to the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) on emerging issues, research, and activities relevant to the PHEMCE programs, goal, and activities. The committee will review key materials from ASPR and provide recommendations on business practices, medical countermeasure preparedness, and conduct an enterprise-wide review of programs, priorities, and harmonization across agencies.

On August 6, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., the committee will hear from ASPR regarding the study charge and key PHEMCE personnel to glean insights into the overall management and operations of the PHEMCE, including major outcomes, accomplishments, and recommendations for the future. On August 13, from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m., the committee will have an opportunity to engage in discussions with ASPR regarding key public documents, as well as hear from different former members of the Enterprise Senior Council, the body that provides strategic direction and policy oversight for HHS in Medical Countermeasure preparedness activities, and other key PHEMCE partners and stakeholders. Register for the April 6 session here and the August 13 session 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

Pandora Report: 07.30.2021

In this week’s Pandora Report, we catch you up on the latest with COVID-19, but there are plenty of other stories if you’re feeling that pandemic fatigue. We also cover chemical and biological weapons and defense; misinformation and disinformation; and biosecurity. And we wrap up with some interesting upcoming (online) events.

The Mask Returns

Citing the surging delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the CDC is now urging everyone, including vaccinated people, in COVID hot spots to resume wearing masks indoors. Additionally, any individual with vulnerable household members should wear masks indoors. While the CDC continues to recommend in-person learning for students in the fall, they are now calling for universal masking for teachers, staff members, and students in schools regardless of vaccination status. This guidance comes after a summer surge in cases attributed to the delta variant as well as pockets of low vaccination rates in communities across the U.S. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky highlighted the danger associated with the delta variant, citing “its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it.” The latest findings from the CDC show that the delta variant appears to cause more severe illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox. And another coronavirus variant was discovered in Colombia and has been showing up in Florida, accounting for roughly 10% of new COVID-19 patients.

In light of these developments, several government entities are implementing new policies. The Smithsonian is now requiring everyone 2 years and older to wear masks in all its indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status. Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs led the way with a vaccine requirement for its staff. Across the U.S. government, federal workers and contractors are now required to prove their COVID-19 vaccination status or undergo a series of regular, rigorous safety protocols. Biden administration staff are required to wear masks indoors when traveling to any part of the country with a high transmission rate; masks will also be required inside the White House as Washington, D.C. is considered a hot spot. You can check whether an area is considered a COVID hot spot (with a “high” or “substantial” number of cases) using this CDC county map. Currently, nearly 65% of U.S. counties are considered hot spots.

If all this news has you down, you may want to consider a move. New Zealand was just rated the best place to survive global societal collapse, followed by Iceland, the United Kingdom, Tasmania, and Ireland. Read more, and decide if you would rank countries using the same criteria, here. Prefer a more down-to-earth solution? Check out this opinion piece on ways to improve preparedness for the next pandemic.

The National Football League Tackles COVID-19

The National Football League just implemented a policy stating that “if a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week schedule due to a COVID-19 outbreak among vaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will forfeit and be credited with a loss.” Players on both teams will not be paid for the lost contest, and if a team is “responsible” for a cancelled game due to unvaccinated players, the team will cover financial losses and be subject to disciplinary action. Vaccines are not currently mandatory for players, but this policy aims to provide an incentive for vaccination. Here’s hoping they don’t fumble the policy’s implementation.

COVID-19 Vaccines: A History

COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are the first approved vaccines ever to use modified messenger RNA (mRNA)—this allowed the vaccines to be rapidly developed. However, this rapid development was backed by a long history of research, starting with the discovery of DNA in 1951 and including one of this article’s featured subjects, Matthew Meselson. Meselson is incredibly well-known in the arms control community as a driving force behind the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, as well as for his role in the U.S.’s renunciation of biological weapons in 1969. Meselson worked for years on understanding DNA, working as part of the team that eventually discovered messenger RNA. This work informed the next generation of scientists who would eventually find a way to harness RNA to treat and prevent disease. You can read the full history here.

Examining the Legacy of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq

The latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features a collection of articles highlighting the history of Iraq’s biological weapons to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), which was established after the 1991 Gulf War to oversee the elimination of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and the long-range missiles that could deliver them. The collection “does not aim to be a comprehensive account” but “it focuses on UNSCOM’s work to uncover Iraq’s large, hidden biological warfare preparations.” It includes articles and interviews from people who served in a range of roles at UNSCOM, including its executive chair, deputy chair, commissioner, chief inspectors, spokesperson, and official historian. You’ll find the full collection of articles here, though some articles required a login. This (free) readout of a recent webinar by Filippa Lentzos and Henrietta Wilson on how United Nations inspectors found and destroyed Iraq’s biological weapons is particularly interesting.

France Issues Moratorium on Prion Research after Deaths of Two Lab Workers

Five public research institutions in France have imposed a 3-month moratorium on the study of prions after a retired lab worker who had handled prions in the past was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Prions are abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and can induce abnormal folding of certain proteins that are found mostly in the brain; CJD is the most common prion disease in humans. France is currently investigating whether the patient, who worked at National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment laboratory, contracted CJD on the job. If so, this would not be the lab’s first case: in 2019, a 33-year-old lab worker died 10 years after pricking her thumb during an experiment with prion-infected mice. This incident led to tightened safety measures at French prion labs. The aim of the new moratorium is to “study the possibility of a link with the [new patient’s] former professional activity and if necessary to adapt the preventative measures in force in research laboratories.” French speakers can read the labs’ press release here.

Gain of Function Research: Exploring Benefits, Risks, and Ethics

The Pandora Report has long covered issues and debates over gain-of-function (GOF) research, where new properties are engineered into existing viruses. If you need a refresher on this debate, a new video provides an overview of GOF research and begins to explore its ethics. The MIT Technical Review also has out an interesting interview with Ralph Baric, a long-time coronavirus researcher who has been at the center of the latest GOF controversy due to his collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. You can read much more in the article here.  

Alleged Israeli Strike on Syrian Chemical Weapons Site

Syria is claiming that a June 8, 2021, Israeli airstrike on an underground site called al-Nasiriyah1 led to the destruction of evidence crucial to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW’s) ongoing investigations into Syrian chemical weapons use. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz initially flagged this issue as part of a larger campaign of obstruction, arguing that “Syria is trying to destroy evidence showing that its declarations to the OPCW have been incomplete and inaccurate.” Nasiriyah is a former chemical weapons production facility; Syria declared it to OPCW inspectors but claimed that it was never used. OPCW inspectors have some evidence that suggests otherwise, but their investigation is so far incomplete. Additionally, the OPCW is also attempting to determine who was responsible for a 2018 chlorine attack in Douma, and Syria is claiming that crucial pieces of evidence in that attack (two gas cylinders) were “lost” in the Nasiriyah attack. Israel has not claimed responsibility for the air strike that took out Nasiriyah, though “in theory nothing should have been going on there that would make Israel want to bomb it.” Israel usually targets Iranian elements active within Syria, and Nasiriyah had been sealed according to the OPCW’s instructions.

State Department Nominee Calls Russia’s Chemical Weapons Use “Chilling and Shocking”

Karen Donfried, current nominee for assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, characterized Russia’s recent use of chemical weapons “chilling and shocking” and pledged to “stand up to Russia’s reckless and aggressive behavior” if she is confirmed to the position. Donfried also committed to using the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to push back against Russian influence and malign activities. The Congressional Research Service published a brief on Russia’s chemical weapons activities and the U.S. response; you can read the brief here.

New Chemical and Biological Systems Undergo Testing at Dugway

Two systems recently underwent operational testing at Dugway Proving Ground to provide a training exercise for users and to use data collected during the tests to inform senior leadership on how effective, suitable, and reliable these systems would be during real-world operations. Tests were conducted on the Joint Biological Tactical Detection System (a detector/collector that monitors for biological warfare agents) and the Contamination Indication Closure Assurance System (which indicates chemical agent contaminants so proper decontamination can take place). You can read more about these tests here.

Misinformation and Disinformation: A Threat to Public Health

Mis- and disinformation have always accompanied infectious disease outbreaks but have been particularly pernicious in response to COVID-19. A recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue takes a deep dive into the online networks of vaccine-skeptics in Germany, analyzing nearly half a million posts from December 2020 through April 2021. Groups and channels promoting anti-vaccine narratives skyrocketed during the study timeframe, and key figures (or “influencers”) created the illusion of peer-reviewed, scientific rigor by referencing each other, creating a “community of anti-vaccination experts.” The study also incorporates perspectives from (actual) experts in health, science, education, and public communication sectors to understand how we can begin to combat this rampant misinformation. You can read the report here.

The U.S. government is also recognizing and taking steps to counter the threat of misinformation. The Surgeon General just released a report on “Confronting Health Misinformation,” recognizing that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “people have been exposed to a great deal of information” and “while information has helped people stay safe throughout the pandemic, it has at times led to confusion.” Although the report acknowledges disinformation—the malicious spread of false information—it focuses on misinformation, which is spread without an intent to misinform. While this report is a step in the right direction, the government should not minimize disinformation and those who spread it. You can read the report here.

New from FEMA: Response to and Recovery from a Chemical Incident

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has just released Key Planning Factors and Considerations for Response to and Recovery from a Chemical Incident (the “Chem KPF”). The Chem KPF helps state, local, tribal, and territorial governments identify considerations that could substantially aid the recovery process by decreasing recovery timelines and costs, improving public health and safety, and addressing major resource limitations and critical decisions resulting from a chemical incident. A draft of this document was circulated for public review and comment in July, and the final version is now available here.

CSIS Report: Biosecurity and the Bioeconomy

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has just released a new report finding that the U.S. government’s pandemic response “has been enabled by the emerging bioeconomy, which provides core biosecurity capabilities that are essential to the success of the mission.” Government engagement with the bioeconomy has steadily increased, and today this engagement spans a range of agencies with a focus on laboratory and product safety as well as research and development. However, “the government lacks mechanisms for providing a broader strategic focus that integrates priorities, including biosecurity, in partnering with the bioeconomy.” Therefore, the government is often unable to fully capitalize on innovations happening throughout the bioeconomy, particularly those developing outside government-sponsored research. Biosecurity policymakers must engage strategically with the bioeconomy beyond the research and development stage—something that is sorely lacking today. The report recommends development of a strategic engagement mechanism, likely housed in the National Security Council and working with a lead federal agency such as the Department of Health and Human Services. You can read more here.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline Extended to August 3

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 August 3. 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.

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? Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz will be a panelist at this event, so be sure to register here.

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

Previously 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.

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.  

Workshop: Towards a Post-Pandemic World, September 21-24

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting the second of a two-part series about what we’ve learned since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Presentations will examine responses to COVID-19 in the U.S. and abroad, featuring retrospective and prospective discussions on the impacts of the pandemic on human health and society and with a view towards enhancing resilience and preparedness for the future. The workshop will take place over four days and focus on a broad range of topics:

  • Sept 21: Anticipated Long-Term Effects of COVID-19
  • Sept 22: Addressing Uncertainties During a Pandemic
  • Sept 23: Mitigating the Next Pandemic through Current Recovery
  • Sept 24: Potentials for a Post-COVID World (Scenario Planning Exercise)

Each day’s session runs from 10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. EDT. You can register here.

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.

Pandora Report: 5.14.2021

The Biodefense Graduate Program will be hosting the Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop in July! Danyale Kellogg, an incoming student to the Biodefense PhD program, highlights the security concerns related to the ending of smallpox vaccinations. Several states are devising incentives to increase their rates of COVID-10 vaccinations.

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.

Toward A Whole-of-Society Framework for Countering Disinformation

Disinformation is the deliberate dissemination of false or erroneous information in order to discredit a person, organization, product, or notion. Disinformation is used as a tactic by actors ranging from Russia’s campaign to weaken democratic and international institutions to terrorist groups’ recruitment efforts to the growing anti-vaccine movement. JD Maddox, Casi Gentzel, and Adela Levis describe a framework for countering disinformation that would entail not only “counter messaging but also of proactive measures that use facts to inform audiences, reduce the impact of disinformation, and promote freedom of expression.” The framework categorizes efforts as communication, resilience, disruption, or regulation. Proactive communication before disinformation (or misinformation) can gain a foothold is critical and requires “implementation of the full spectrum of communication capabilities.” Further, increasing transparency and building trust in democratic values and institutions are needed. Building resilience to disinformation will include activities such as improving digital literacy; promoting independent, fact-based, investigative journalism; and leveraging public diplomacy. Disruption leverages technology to prevent the spread of disinformation through various tools and techniques such as blocking or cyberspace operations. Regulation – including legislation and international cooperation – should seek input from local and national legislators, media associations, internet platforms and the broader tech sector, and international organizations. JD Maddox will be teaching a course for the Schar School next semester on countering disinformation. Read the article here.

The Overlooked, Dangerous Nexus Between National Security and Public Health: The Case of Smallpox

Danyale Kellogg, an incoming student to the Biodefense PhD program, highlights the security concerns related to the ending of smallpox vaccinations for the civilian population after the disease’s eradication in 1980. Today, only the US and Russia maintain official samples of the variola virus that causes smallpox; however, other nations possess unofficial samples of the virus, including North Korea. This sparks concerns that a country possessing samples could deploy them as a weapon, an attack that the US is ill-equipped to combat. Additionally, there are worries regarding the use of artificial gene synthesis to recreate smallpox. In fact, in 2017, a Canadian research team synthesized the horsepox virus, which as a relative to smallpox could serve as a roadmap to recreating the eradicated scourge. Preparing for a possible smallpox attack would require “strengthening public health at all levels, ensuring the stability and efficacy of the Strategic National Stockpile, and making sure healthcare providers and private healthcare systems are prepared should they be presented with a case.”

Top Researchers are Calling for a Real Investigation into the Origin of COVID-19

Eighteen prominent biologists published a letter in the journal Science calling for a new investigation into all conceivable origins of the novel coronavirus, and imploring that Chinese laboratories and agencies “open their records” to independent analysis. They write:

“As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries, and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”

The controversial theory that the virus could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) remains a point of contention, but the letter calls for a thorough examination of all possibilities. Dr. Shi Zhengli, chief scientist for emerging disease at WIV, said that the “letter’s suspicions were misplaced and would damage the world’s ability to respond to pandemics.”

Infographic on SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern with Dr. Angela Rasmussen

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and research scientist with the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security and VIDO-InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan, developed an infographic explaining the most important features of the newest SARS-CoV-2 variants.

NTI and the Next Generation GHS Network Launch 5th Annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

NTI | bio is partnering with the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to foster biosecurity professional development within the Next Generation GHS Network. We are seeking innovative and creative papers for online publication by NTI | bio and the NextGen GHS Network focused on responsible conduct of life science research. The winning team also will 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.

As emerging biological risks continue to grow with the rapid pace of biotechnology advances, safe, secure, and responsible conduct of life science research is increasingly important. For this year’s competition, submissions should address the following questions and subordinate considerations: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom?

Information regarding submission criteria and eligibility can be found here. The deadline is 28 June 2021 at 11:59 PM EST.

Expert Independent Panel Calls for Urgent Reform of Pandemic Prevention and Response Systems

A panel of leading experts is calling on the global community to end the COVID-19 pandemic by immediately implementing a series of bold recommendations to redistribute, fund, and increase the availability of and manufacturing capacity for vaccines, and to apply proven public health measures urgently and consistently in every country. The Panel is also recommending that national governments and the international community immediately adopt a package of reforms to transform the global pandemic preparedness and response system and prevent a future pandemic. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response was appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General in response to a World Health Assembly resolution calling for an independent, impartial, and comprehensive review of experiences gained and lessons to be learned from the current pandemic. The review was also asked to provide recommendations to improve capacity for global pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. The Panel released its findings and recommendations today in its main report: COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic. The report demonstrates that the current system—at both national and international levels— was not adequate to protect people from COVID-19. The time it took from the reporting of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in mid-late December 2019 to a Public Health Emergency of International Concern being declared was too long. February 2020 was also a lost month when many more countries could have taken steps to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and forestall the global health, social, and economic catastrophe that continues its grip. The Panel finds that the system as it stands now is clearly unfit to prevent another novel and highly infectious pathogen, which could emerge at any time, from developing into a pandemic. Recommended reforms include: establishing a Global Health Threats Council; establishing a new global system for surveillance based on full transparency; investing in national preparedness now; and creating an International Pandemic Financing Facility.

Poll Finds Public Health Has A Trust Problem

A poll conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed 1,305 people from mid-February to mid-March of this year to examine trust in key public health groups. The survey found that merely 52% of respondents have a great deal of trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but other agencies saw even lower figures. Only 37% said they had a lot of trust in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Forty-one percent trust state health departments and 44% trust local health departments. This growing mistrust is unsurprising given the many missteps that have occurred in the COVID-19 pandemic including political interference, incomplete information, and confusing messaging. Interestingly, the survey showed the political divide in trust: only 27% of Republicans greatly trust the CDC, compared to 76% of Democrats.

Modeling of Future COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations, and Deaths, by Vaccination Rates and Nonpharmaceutical Intervention Scenarios

A recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) modelled the expected COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Increases in COVID-19 cases in March and early April occurred despite a large-scale vaccination program. Increases coincided with the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants and relaxation of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). Data from six models indicate that with high vaccination coverage and moderate NPI adherence, hospitalizations and deaths will likely remain low nationally, with a sharp decline in cases projected by July 2021. Lower NPI adherence could lead to substantial increases in severe COVID-19 outcomes, even with improved vaccination coverage. High vaccination coverage and compliance with NPIs are essential to control COVID-19 and prevent surges in hospitalizations and deaths in the coming months.

What Has COVID-19 Taught Us about Strengthening the DOD’s Global Health Security Capacities?

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) details five recommendations for “how the Biden-Harris administration and members of Congress can help steer impending deliberations over the future of the DOD’s contributions to global health security.” The COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions of lives and sickened many more, destabilizing economies and security. Though we are not yet out of the woods with this pandemic, we should prepare to face biological threats in the future. Broad US military expertise in health, biosecurity, and biosafety has contributed to the ongoing response and will continue to contribute substantially to coordinated, interagency global health security efforts. These recommendations are designed to “complement the excellent and extensive recent analysis by Mark Cancian and Adam Saxton of the CSIS International Security Program on how the US military responded to Covid-19 to guarantee the protection and readiness of US forces and how it supported the civilian pandemic response at home.” The recommendations are: (1) elevate biological threats; (2) protect and strengthen operational assets; (3) secure the future of the DOD’s medical skill base; (4) launch a military-to-military health security cooperation initiative; and (5) transition existing DOD international health engagement activities into sustainable, integrated programs. Read the report here.

Upcoming Meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board

The National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) provides expert advice and guidance to the Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response on scientific, technical, and other matters related to public health emergency preparedness and response. The NBSB will host a public teleconference to discuss new recommendations to HHS that address remaining public health emergency preparedness and response challenges. In light of the numerous health emergencies and disasters that have affected the United States since 2007, NBSB continues to provide recommendations related to health emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. Meetings of the NBSB are open to the public. This meeting will be held on 26 May 2021 at 11 AM EST. Register here.

Event – Get Set: Lessons Learned for The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) is hosting an online discussion on Lessons Learned for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference. This is the second in a series of events the Institute is hosting in preparation for the Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The event will contribute to enhancing understandings of BWC review conferences and identifying lessons to be learned from past experiences. Speakers for this event include Ambassador Dr. György Molnár, Special Representative of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade for Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation MFAT Hungary and President of the Eighth BWC Review Conference; Dr. Una Jakob, research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany; and Mr. Zahid Rastam, charge d’Affaires ad-interim, High Commissioner of Malaysia to United Kingdom. The panel will be moderated by UNIDIR researcher, James Revill and will include a question-and-answer session with the audience. The event will be held 20 May 2021 at 1 PM CEST. Register here.

Ineffective Past, Uncertain Future

In 2016, in the face of relentless attacks on health care in situations of conflict, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2286. This committed UN member states to taking action to prevent attacks on health care and ensure accountability for perpetrators. In the five years since, they have done neither. In annual reports in the years since Resolution 2286 was adopted, the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition (SHCC) and Insecurity Insight reported a total of more than 4,000 unique incidents of violence against health care in situations of armed conflict – on average more than two incidents a day. Because the reporting of such incidents is limited in many countries, this number is likely a significant undercount. The violence has taken myriad forms: airstrikes against and shelling of hospitals and clinics; kidnappings and killings of health workers; damage to, the destruction of, and looting of health care facilities and vehicles; actions that prevent those in need from accessing health care; violent interference with emergency medical responders, vaccinators and others and; arrests of health workers. During 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in more violence against health care, including in countries not at war, such as India and Mexico. Violence causes not only immediate death, injury, and destruction, but often results in an enormous psychological and physical toll on health workers and the people in the communities they serve. Hidden in each incident is the loss of family members and colleagues, livelihoods, homes, and, sometimes, a way of life. The true cost of the attacks also includes the lasting impacts on health workers’ mental health and on communities’ ability to access care for chronic illness, safe childbirth, immunization, and more. Fewer health workers are available to provide care as doctors and nurses flee the violence. The report – Ineffective Past, Uncertain Future – presents the documented threats and violence against health care between January 2016 and December 2020. An interactive map developed by Insecurity Insight and MapAction for the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition shows incidents of violence and threats against health care. Read the report here and view the map here.

Incentives to Vaccinate

In effort to encourage COVID-19 vaccination, several states have devised clever incentivizes to increases their rates as demand declines. In Louisiana, the vaccine is easily accessible, but to inspire more people to join the fight against the pandemic, a vaccination event in New Orleans also offered a pound of free boiled crawfish. In Ohio, there will be five weekly lottery drawings for $1 million open to residents who received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Similarly, there is a lottery for teenagers that offers a full, four-year scholarship to a public university in Ohio – room and board included. Maryland launched an incentive of $100 to state employees who opt to get fully vaccinated. New Jersey introduced its “Operation Jersey Summer” campaign to reach the state’s goal of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by the end of June. As part of the campaign, vaccinees aged 21 years or older can participate in the “Shot and a Beer” program that provides a free beer with COVID-19 vaccinations beginning this month.

Pandora Report: 5.7.2021

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy shared new tools to find vaccines near you! You can text ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX) or 822862 (VACUNA). You can also visit vaccines.gov or vacunas.gov. The shot emoji gets a makeover. WHO and Germany launch the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.

The ‘Vaccine’ Emoji Gets a New Look This Week

This month, the most popular emoji on Twitter was the one with its mouth agape and tears streaming down, depicting the pandemic mood of being overwhelmed with either anguish or relief as the vaccines roll out. The microbe emoji has also surged in use over the last year to describe SARS-CoV-2. The face mask and shot emojis are also quite popular, promoting these countermeasures. To better represent vaccines, the vaccine emoji has been redesigned from syringe with a bright red barrel and a drop of blood coming out from the needle to a syringe with a blue-gray hue without the blood droplet.

COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism Will Cost Lives Worldwide

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, called the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines by wealthy nations as a “catastrophic moral failure.” By mid-March, 14% of the global population had access to more than half of the vaccines in the world, and modeling suggests that this hoarding will lead to nearly twice as many deaths as would happen if vaccines were shared across the globe. “Vaccine nationalists” advocate for vaccinating the people in their own country by any means necessary, whereas “globalists” seek more equitable approaches for vaccine allocation that are based on need rather than payment. The US possesses an excess of the AstraZeneca vaccine that it anticipated would gain emergency authorization. After much pressure, the Biden administration decided to donate that stockpile, some 60 million doses, to nations in need. “Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccination does.” Equitable vaccination should be the default policy and action, not requiring pressure. In order to protect or strengthen the public health of a nation, we need to protect and strengthen the public health of all nations.

WHO, Germany Launch New Global Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Federal Republic of Germany will establish a new global hub for pandemic and epidemic intelligence, data, surveillance and analytics innovation. The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence will be a global platform for pandemic and epidemic intelligence, creating shared and networked access to vital multi-sectoral data, driving innovations in data analytics and building the communities of practice needed to predict, prevent, detect, prepare for, and respond to worldwide health threats. The Hub, based in Berlin and working with partners around the world, will lead innovations in data analytics across the largest network of global data to predict, prevent, detect prepare for and respond to pandemic and epidemic risks worldwide. It will be a new global collaboration of countries and partners worldwide, driving innovations to increase availability and linkage of diverse data; develop tools and predictive models for risk analysis; and to monitor disease control measures and infodemics.

Mitigating Future Respiratory Virus Pandemics: New Threats and Approaches to Consider

Despite many recent efforts to predict and control emerging infectious disease threats to humans, we failed to anticipate the zoonotic viruses which led to pandemics in 2009 and 2020. The morbidity, mortality, and economic costs of these pandemics have been staggering. We desperately need a more targeted, cost-efficient, and sustainable strategy to detect and mitigate future zoonotic respiratory virus threats. Evidence suggests that the transition from an animal virus to a human pathogen is incremental and requires a considerable number of spillover events and considerable time before a pandemic variant emerges. A new article in Viruses view argues for the refocusing of public health resources on novel respiratory virus surveillance at human–animal interfaces in geographical hotspots for emerging infectious diseases. Where human–animal interface surveillance is not possible, a secondary high-yield, cost-efficient strategy is to conduct novel respiratory virus surveillance among pneumonia patients in these same hotspots. When novel pathogens are discovered, they must be quickly assessed for their human risk and, if indicated, mitigation strategies initiated. In this review, the authors discuss the most common respiratory virus threats, current efforts at early emerging pathogen detection, and propose and defend new molecular pathogen discovery strategies with the goal of preempting future pandemics. Read the article here.

Insider Q&A: Ex-Biodefense Chief on Stopping the Next COVID

Dr. Rick Bright is a former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a government office tasked with procuring and developing medical countermeasures for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats along with emerging diseases. One year ago, Bright submitted a whistleblower complaint regarding the improper use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, to treat COVID-19; the medication was later considered ineffective and too risky. In retaliation, Bright was demoted and he ultimately resigned from his position. Bright is now the Senior Vice President of Pandemic Prevention and Response at the Rockefeller Foundation.  In a conversation with AP News, Bright explains that, in the early days of the pandemic, he wishes there had been a “reliable, nonpolitical, early warning signal.” The lack of a strong signal, transparency, and information sharing needs to change before the next biological event. He also points out there is not necessarily a lack of data or information, rather there is a need to be able to “aggregate all that information in a trusted source that’s not beholden to politics or money.”

Event – The Global Health Security Index: A Tool for Decision Makers in Latin America

The Global Health Security Index – developed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (JHU), and The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) – is the first comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries. On 12 May, NTI and the Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University are hosting an event, “The Global Health Security Index: A Tool for Decision Makers in Latin America.” Panelists include Javier Rodriguez Zulato, Director of the Initiative for Global Security (IGS); Luciana Vazquez, Biosecurity and Biosafety Program Coordinator at IGS; Dr. Ricardo Teijeiro, IGS Biosafety and Biosecurity Program Argentine Society of Infectology (SADI); Luis Carrerra Fox, North America Liaison IGS/PandemichTech; Jessica Bell, Senior Program Officer at NTI; and Ernesto Gozzer, Professor at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heridia. Register here for the virtual webinar on 12 May at 2 PM EST.

Superspreaders of Malign and Subversive Information on COVID-19: Russian and Chinese Efforts Targeting the United States

The RAND Corporation released a report as part of its Countering Truth Decay initiative that examines the Russian and Chinese efforts to target the US through information manipulation. Activities to spread COVID-19-related malign and subversive information have been underway throughout the pandemic, but the report assesses evidence from the January to July 2020 period. Two types of sources were used: those formally linked to Russia and China and those shown to have indirect links to Russian or Chinese governments or networks. Using exploratory qualitative analysis, several trends were found, including: both countries falsely accused the United States of developing and intentionally spreading the virus; both countries modified their COVID-19-related messaging over time, focusing on conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins and impacts; Russia deployed wide-ranging media and targeted a variety of audiences, while China’s approach was ideologically uniform and appeared to target audiences that were less varied. Read the report here.

Virologist Angela Rasmussen on the Controversy Surrounding Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 Vaccine

Dr. Angela Rasmussen is a virologist and research scientist with the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security and VIDO-InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan. STAT had a conversation with Rasmussen about the controversy surrounding Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, which is based on technology similar to that of the Johnson and Johnson as well as AstraZeneca vaccines. According to a study published in The Lancet, the Sputnik vaccine showed 91.6% efficacy, ranking it as one of the most effective in the world. When asked why Brazil rejected the Sputnik vaccine, Rasmussen explained that with the adenovirus component, the virus could potentially replicate and cause downstream complications. Another issue is the worry about quality control of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine, specifically, there may be “discrepancies in the manufacturing process.” In terms of soft power diplomacy, the concerns regarding the Sputnik vaccine may be dealing a blow to Russia’s attempt to assume a leadership role in the global vaccine efforts.

Listen to the full conversation here.

Event – Reinforcing the Norm Against Chemical Weapons: The April 20-22 Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention

At the second session of the 25th Conference of States Parties held in The Hague last month, the member states took several important steps to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use and to hold Chemical Weapons Convention violators accountable. Foremost among these was the decision to suspend the rights and privileges of Syria under the Convention. The Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition, in cooperation with the Arms Control Association, will host a briefing to review the results and implications of the 25th Conference of States Parties for the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the CWC regime. Panelists include Amb. Lisa Helfand, Permanent Representative of Canada to the OPCW (confirmed); Amb. Gudrun Lingner, Permanent Representative of Germany to the OPCW; Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, independent disarmament and security researcher at The Trench; and Dr. Paul Walker, moderator, Coordinator, Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition. Opening remarks will be given by H.E. Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW. The panel will be held on 10 May 2021 at 10 AM EST. Register here.

Cheminformatics at the Stimson Center

As recent international incidents amply demonstrate, chemical weapons remain an enduring and very real challenge to international peace and security. However, frontline officers for border security and trade controls, as well as chemical industry employees, struggle to identify whether a chemical can be utilized as a chemical warfare agent and precursor. This challenge stems from at least three sources: (1) lists of controlled chemicals identify chemicals of concern through names and registry numbers – however, the lists may not cover the specific chemical in question, given that chemicals have a multitude of synonymous names and different variants of the same chemical; (2) some lists of controlled chemicals do not identify individual chemicals only chemical families, which can make the lists difficult to interpret by non-chemists; and (3) lists of controlled chemicals are subject to change and must be kept current. The Stimson Center is developing a tool to help overcome these challenges.

The Cheminformatics tool is composed of an up-to-date database of relevant lists of controlled chemicals to help address problems inherent to the way in which the identification of such chemicals is currently conducted by converting any entered chemical name or registry number into a chemical structure, and automatically checking whether that structure matches any entry of the database. Through September 2021, the Cheminformatics team will work to lay the groundwork for the development of a database tool that will allow frontline officers for border security and trade controls as well as chemical industry employees to easily assess if a given chemical falls within the scope of a national or international control list of chemical warfare agents and precursors. A demonstration of the prototype was given in late February to showcase its ability to query a database of controlled chemicals and verify if a specific chemical is included on a control list.

A Revolution Is Sweeping the Science of Ancient Diseases

Dr. Johannes Krause, director of the archaeogenetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, co-authored the book A Short History of Humanity, which synthesizes twenty years of work with ancient DNA from humans and pathogens. In the past decade, ancient DNA have been used to study diseases – the plague, syphilis, hepatitis B, and a mysterious “cocoliztli” epidemic – using techniques based on decoding the genome of the Neanderthal. This has enabled a “boom” in ancient pathogen DNA examination and revealed information of forgotten or extinct diseases. Krause explains that the teeth from ancient remains are used to collect blood samples; this is because the pathogens of interest are blood-borne. In the DNA of Yersinia pestis, the causal agent for plague, scientists found that the “Black Death is literally the common ancestor, the mother of 80% of the strains that circulate in the world today.” Krause and his colleagues have found evidence of bacteria that look like Yersinia pestis from teeth in Europe that date back almost 5,000 years. Though Krause cannot specifically identify the disease, he does describe it as likely lethal, but not transmissible via fleas. Read the full interview here.