Pandora Report: 2.3.2023

Happy Friday! This week we are covering President Biden’s announcement that the national and public health emergency declarations for COVID-19 will terminate on May 11, recommendations to expand federal oversight of biosecurity and risky research, and the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team’s third report on the 2018 Douma chemical attack. We also have a number of new publications and a podcast episode featuring Dr. Glenn Cross, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program, discussing Rhodesia’s CBW program during its counterinsurgency in the 1970s.

Biden Administration to End COVID-19 Emergency Declarations in May

In September of last year, President Biden declared in an interview on “60 Minutes” that “The pandemic is over,” drawing swift backlash for seemingly endorsing the sentiment that the pandemic is over because Americans want to behave like it is. He continued, saying “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it…but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.” We wrote then, “Everybody” is definitely not “in pretty good shape.” With developments announced this week, this has potential to become even more true later this year with the end of pandemic protections.

President Biden notified Congress this week that he plans to end the national emergency and public health emergency declarations for the COVID-19 pandemic on May 11, a move that will shift the federal response to one designed at managing an endemic threat and end several protections and benefits. It comes as many have pushed for a “return to normal” and House Republicans threaten to end the national emergencies themselves. The end of these emergencies will likely mean that many Americans will have to pay for COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, and treatments out of pocket that were previously free to them. Zeke Miller explains this further in AP News, writing in part “It comes as lawmakers have already ended elements of the emergencies that kept millions of Americans insured during the pandemic. Combined with the drawdown of most federal COVID-19 relief money, it would also shift the development of vaccines and treatments away from the direct management of the federal government.”

Congress has refused to authorize additional funding for COVID-19 vaccines, prompting the federal government to begin preparations to move this care to the commercial market last year. Pfizer and Moderna have indicated that their prices for COVID-19 vaccines will likely be between $82 and $130 per dose. This amount is between three and four times what the federal government has paid for them through bulk purchasing programs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The same Kaiser analysis found that, “If payers end up paying those prices for one dose per adult, the analysis estimates that the total cost of purchasing booster shots commercially would run between $6.2 billion and $29.7 billion a year, depending on price and how many people nationally get the vaccine or booster.”

The federal government spent over $30 billion on these vaccines to “…encourage their development, guarantee a market, and ensure that the public can access them at no charge.” Insurers may be able to negotiate discounted prices, but as Kaiser also points out, “…they will have limited leverage because they will generally be required to cover all recommended vaccines and boosters.” While those with public or private insurance may not personally bear this cost, this could drive up insurance premiums. Worse, those who are uninsured will lose their guaranteed access to these vaccines and, given the prices announced per dose by Pfizer and Moderna, paying out-of-pocket will likely be out of reach for many.

And the number of uninsured also has potential to rise with the end of expanded Medicare coverage in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. AP explains, “Medicaid enrollment ballooned during the pandemic, in part because the federal government prohibited states from removing people from the program during the public health emergency once they had enrolled. The program offers health care coverage to roughly 90 million children and adults — or 1 out of every 4 Americans. Late last year, Congress told states they could start removing ineligible people in April. Millions of people are expected to lose their coverage, either because they now make too much money to qualify for Medicare or they’ve moved. Many are expected to be eligible for low-cost insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act’s private marketplace or their employer.”

Worse yet “Food help for unemployed adults, under the age of 50 and without children, will also change after the public health emergency is lifted in May. During the emergency declaration, a rule that required those individuals to work or participate in job training for 20 hours per week to remain eligible for SNAP benefits was suspended. That rule will be in place again starting in June. SNAP aid for more low-income college students will also draw down in June.” Important to note here is that it is estimated as many as 4 million Americans are out of work because they are dealing with long COVID. The unemployment rate stayed roughly the same in January 2023 as job growth continued, but this does not address discrepancies between stagnated wages and rising costs of living. Ultimately, the end of all these expanded benefits and protections now will only harm especially vulnerable populations, more than likely threatening their overall health.

Finally, the Office of Budget and Management indicated this week that “…an abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans. During the PHE, the Medicaid program has operated under special rules to provide extra funding to states to ensure that tens of millions of vulnerable Americans kept their Medicaid coverage during a global pandemic. In December, Congress enacted an orderly wind-down of these rules to ensure that patients did not lose access to care unpredictably and that state budgets don’t face a radical cliff. If the PHE were suddenly terminated, it would sow confusion and chaos into this critical wind-down. Due to this uncertainty, tens of millions of Americans could be at risk of abruptly losing their health insurance, and states could be at risk of losing billions of dollars in funding.” If the last three years have taught us anything, it is that giving about 100 days notice for these kinds of changes is hardly helpful for those who will be the most impacted.

Of course, the end of the national emergencies does not mean the pandemic is actually over. Three years after its inaugural meeting, the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee released the report from its fourteenth meeting regarding COVID-19. While the committee and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged the pandemic is likely at a transition point, the “WHO Director-General concurs with the advice offered by the Committee regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and determines that the event continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).”

Importantly, “The WHO Secretariat expressed concern about the continued virus evolution in the context of unchecked circulation of SARS-CoV-2 and the substantial decrease in Member States’ reporting of data related to COVID-19 morbidity, mortality, hospitalization and sequencing, and reiterated the importance of timely data sharing to guide the ongoing pandemic response…WHO is urging countries: to remain vigilant and continue reporting surveillance and genomic sequencing data; to recommend appropriately targeted risk-based public health and social measures (PHSM) where necessary; to vaccinate populations most at risk to minimize severe disease and deaths; and to conduct regular risk communication, answering population concerns and engaging communities to improve the understanding and implementation of countermeasures.”

Ultimately, apathy towards this ongoing emergency is driving the end of protections and needed benefits for those that need them most. The pandemic is not over, despite politicians’ interest in that being the case. No amount of political rhetoric will ever substitute making needed investments in adequately managing and preventing these kinds of public health emergencies–a lesson the United States seems destined to “re-learn” yet again.

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).| Credit: CDC PHIL

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity Recommends Changes in Biosecurity Oversight

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity endorsed a set of draft recommendations this past week that found, among other things, that current definitions of potential pandemic pathogens (PPP) and enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ePPP) are too narrow and over-focused on pathogens that “…are both likely “highly” transmissible and likely “highly” virulent”. Their recommendations would expand oversight to cover work considered less risky and end blanket exclusions for “research activities associated with surveillance and vaccine development or production,” among several other measures aimed at enhancing safety and transparency. The White House will decide whether or not to adopt these recommendations.

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Graduate Program Director, discussed these recommendations with The New York Times, saying ““If the government implements the spirit of what they’ve written, this would be a major overhaul of dual-use research oversight in the United States,”. The article also explains his argument that the White house should go beyond these recommendations and create an independent agency to perform this oversight and streamline a system he says is too fragmented.

OPCW Investigation and Identification Team Releases Third Report on Douma Attack

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released its third report from its Investigation and Identification Team investigating a chemical weapons attack that occurred on April 7, 2018, in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic. The report indicates that “Based on the holistic assessment of the large volume and wide range of evidence gathered and analysed, and on the convergence of the outcomes of such corroborated multiple analyses, the IIT concluded that, on the evening of 7 April 2018, at least one helicopter of the Syrian “Tiger Forces” Elite Unit dropped two yellow cylinders containing toxic chlorine gas on two apartment buildings in a civilian-inhabited area in Douma, killing 43 named individuals and affecting dozens more.”

Syria’s Foreign Ministry commented on the report: “The [Syrian Foreign Ministry] statement said that the report lacks scientific and objective evidence, and no sane person or specialist can reach such misleading conclusions,” Syria’s state-run SANA news agency summarized the foreign ministry as saying….”Those who prepared this report neglected the objective observations raised by State parties, experts, academics and former OPCW inspectors, known for their expertise and knowledge.”

However, as polygraph.info explains, “That is false…The OPCW reviewed over 19,000 files, obtained and assessed 66 witness statements, and considered data related to 70 samples. It also followed up on “lines of inquiry” suggested by Syria and other state parties…Adhering to “best practices,” the OPCW reached its conclusions after collecting, scrutinizing and corroborating all the available information gathered throughout the course of its nearly two-year investigation.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a joint statement with UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs James Cleverly, French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna, and German Federal Foreign Minister Annalen Baerbock discussing the OPCW report:

Today, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report that found the Assad regime responsible for the deadly chemical weapons attack on Douma on April 7, 2018. The report refutes the Russian claim that it was an opposition attack.

The report concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that, around 19:30 local time on April 7, 2018 at least one Mi-8/17 helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force, departing from Dumayr airbase and operating under the control of the Tiger Forces, dropped two yellow cylinders which hit two residential buildings in a central area of the city releasing chlorine killing 43 named individuals and affecting dozens more.

This report marks the ninth instance of chemical weapons use independently attributed to the Assad regime by UN and OPCW mechanisms.

Our governments condemn in the strongest terms the Syrian regime’s repeated use of these horrific weapons and remain steadfast in our demands that the Assad regime immediately comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.  Syria must fully declare and destroy its chemical weapons program and allow the deployment of OPCW staff to its country to verify it has done so.

The report also points out that the IIT received credible information, corroborated through multiple sources, that Russian forces were co-located at Dumayr airbase alongside the Tiger Forces. The IIT also obtained information that, at the time of the attack, the airspace over Douma was exclusively controlled by the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces.

We call on the Russian Federation to stop shielding Syria from accountability for its use of chemical weapons. No amount of disinformation from the Kremlin can hide its hand in abetting the Assad regime. In the aftermath of Syria’s chemical attack on April 7, 2018, Russian military police helped the Syrian regime obstruct OPCW access to the site of the attack and attempted to sanitize the site.  Russian and Syrian troops also staged photographs later disseminated online in an attempt to support its fabricated narratives of this incident.

We commend the independent, unbiased, and expert work of the OPCW staff, condemn the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstances.  We also reaffirm our commitment to hold accountable the perpetrators of all chemical weapons attacks in Syria and beyond.

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Graduate Program Director, said of the OPCW report: “This report documents the fifth chemical attack that can be directly attributed to the Syrian air force. The chlorine attack on Douma fits a pattern of chemical weapon use by the Assad regime and was an integral part of the brutal counterinsurgency operation the Assad regime was conducting at the time. The report is based on a thorough, multidisciplinary investigation that refutes Syrian and Russian allegations that this attack was somehow staged by the rebels.   The report breaks new ground by naming the Syrian military officer responsible for conducting this attack: Brigadier General Souheil Al-Hassan, commander of the notorious Tiger Forces, which has been responsible for a series of chemical attacks and other atrocities during the Syrian civil war.”

“Pandemic Origins: Technologies, Challenges, and Policy Options to Support Investigations”

This report from the Government Accountability Office discusses the findings of the office’s technology assessment, Pandemic Origins: Technologies and Challenges for Biological Investigations and covers “(1) key technologies available for pandemic origin investigations, (2) strengths and limitations of these tools and how researchers use them to investigate pandemic origins, and (3) cross-cutting challenges researchers face in trying to determine a pandemic’s origin.” GAO identified several challenges that can inhibit determination of a pandemic’s origin, including challenges in acquiring data and the lack of a sufficient and skilled workforce. According to the report, “GAO identified five policy options that may help address the cross-cutting challenges, including proactively establishing multilateral agreements for accessing and sharing samples and genetic sequence data, taking steps to grow an interdisciplinary workforce, and developing a national strategy targeted to pandemic origin investigations. These policy options represent possible actions that policymakers—who may include Congress, federal agencies, state and local governments, academia, industry, and international organizations—could consider taking.”

Disease X: The 100 Days Mission to End Pandemics

This new book was published this week by Kate Kelland, Chief Scientific Writer at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). “Distilling insights from health security experts, examining epidemics and pandemics of the past and present, and analysing what governments, societies and their people got right and wrong in the response to COVID-19 and other devastating disease outbreaks, Kelland explores why and how viruses—tiny as they are—can wreak enormous havoc on our way of life. But she also tells a story of hope, giving readers a glimpse of a future where the threat of pandemics has been neutralised by a prepared and collaborative world.”

Governing Pandemics Snapshot Inaugural Issue

The first issue of Governing Pandemics Snapshot is available now from the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre. “Welcome to the inaugural issue of the Governing Pandemics Snapshot, a publication aiming to provide a concise, periodic overview on the state of efforts to strengthen global pandemic preparedness and response (PPR). This first issue looks back at 2022 and forward to 2023, examining three topics that will recur with each issue: negotiations towards a Pandemic Treaty (or instrument), amendment of the International Health Regulations; and Financing of PPR. Each issue will also cover a rotating special topic, and we begin here with Pathogen- and Benefit-Sharing (PBS). More frequent updates are available on our timeline at GoverningPandemics.org.”

“Addressing Misconceptions About Biological and Chemical Weapons and Related Legal Frameworks”

This new report from VERTIC is available now here. “The main purpose of this resource is to disprove misconceptions about biological and chemical weapons and related international instruments. It addresses misconceptions about biological and chemical weapons and related legal frameworks that VERTIC staff have identified through interactions with states over 20 years’ work on these treaties, and from other sources such as the media. Each misconception is broken down into an explanation of the misconception and its implications, and how to address it. The misconceptions are then disproved through factual and legal discussions, supported by expert commentary.”

“New Bio-Defense Strategy to Eschew ‘One Bug, One Drug’ Programs”

This piece in National Defense covers discussion of the upcoming Bio-Defense Posture Review with USAF Col. James Harwell, deputy director for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense at the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Requirements Office. The article reads in part, “Gone are the days where we take long periods of time to identify an emerging threat and build a specific countermeasure to that threat. Science is moving at a pace that allows for new threats to rapidly emerge and to undermine our ability to achieve our National Defense Strategy,” Harwell said.”

“The Doomsday Clock is Ticking on Biosecurity”

In this piece for Defense One, Suzet McKinney, Asha George, and David Relman discuss the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board’s setting of the Doomsday Clock’s time to 90 second to midnight. They acknowledge that it was mostly moved because of the war in Ukraine, but they also write that “The impact of this war on the global order has implications far beyond the nuclear realm and the battlefield more generally. The war thwarts international cooperation exactly when we need cooperation most—to address pressing 21st-century threats such as climate change, mis- and disinformation, and a problem we and others know quite well: the proliferation of biological threats.”  

“Managing the Risks of Biotechnology Innovation”

In this workshop policy paper for the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall discusses the risks posed by biotechnological progress and summarizes a November CFR workshop titled “Managing the
Risks of Biotechnology Innovation.” She identifies several gaps in global governance of these risks, including misinformation and disinformation’s influence on the progress and governance of biotechnology, writing in part “Well-funded groups have undermined the development of various biotechnologies, as seen in “golden rice,” which was developed in the 1990s to combat vitamin A deficiency. However, this intervention has not been deployed due to unjustified safety concerns, and millions of children have died from vitamin A deficiency. Misinformation about GMOs, vaccines, and therapies is common, and has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Russia has recently presented the presence of public health laboratories in Ukraine as cause for suspicion of misuse of biotechnologies. Sometimes institutions, newspapers, or research groups will organize to counter specific threads of misinformation and disinformation, but it is a significant, often uncompensated, obligation for those involved.”

“The Next Generation of Coronavirus Vaccines: A Graphical Guide”

“Vaccines against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 have been given to billions of people to protect them from COVID-19, and have saved more than 20 million lives. But viral variants can evade some of the immunity provided by the original vaccines. As a result, vaccine developers around the world are working on dozens of ‘next-generation’ COVID-19 vaccines: not just updates of the first versions, but ones that use new technologies and platforms.” Check out this graphical guide from Nature that covers the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Could a Chatbot Teach You How to Build a Dirty Bomb?”

In this piece for Outrider, Matt Korda discusses concerns brought about by chatbots like ChatGPT and OpenAI. He writes in part, “But despite being programmed to align with human values, could ChatGPT be tricked into doing harm? To answer this question, many researchers (myself included) picked up ChatGPT’s proverbial gauntlet and went to work searching for creative ways to circumvent the AI model’s safety guardrails. The results of this collective experiment were often funny and—worryingly—occasionally successful.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

Poisons and Pestilence “14 Bonus Episode: Dirty War with Glenn Cross”

In this latest episode, Dr. Brett Edwards discusses Rhodesia’s development of a CBW program and its use during the country’s counterinsurgency in the 1970s with Dr. Glenn Cross, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD program and author of Dirty War, a book discussing this program in-depth that is a must read.

This Podcast Will Kill You “Episode 111 RSV: What’s syncytial anyway?”

“We’re kicking off our sixth season in the same way we ended our fifth: with another headline-making respiratory virus. But as our listeners know, not all respiratory viruses are the same, and it’s often those differences among them that play the biggest role in their spread or the symptoms they cause. This episode, we’re exploring the virus that everyone has been talking about lately. No, not that one. Or that one. The other one. Yes, we’re talking about respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. For many people, the recent surge in RSV infections that dominated headlines this winter may have been the first time they had heard of this viral infection or realized how deadly it could be. But for others, RSV has long inspired fear and dread. In this episode, we Erins explain why this virus deserves such notoriety, how long we’ve recognized the dangers of infection, and what hope the future may hold for novel RSV treatments or vaccines. If at any point you’ve wondered what all the fuss is about this virus or how to pronounce syncytial, then this is the episode for you!”

Prosperity and Human Security: Japan and Asia’s 21st Century Governance Challenges

Join Harvard’s Program on US-Japan Relations for this symposium that includes panels on “Development and Governance Challenges in Public Health” and “Development, Climate Change, and Climate Migration”. The former will feature Dr. Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussing “China, Covid-19, and global health governance”. This event will take place on February 6 at 12 pm EST. Learn more and register here.

Jonathan Tucker CBW Symposium

“The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies cordially invites you to the 11th annual Jonathan Tucker Symposium on chemical and biological weapons issues on February 9th and 10th, 2023.” BW topics include “Revisiting the Siege of Caffa & Catapulting Cadavers” and “Governance of Dual-Use Biological Research,” the latter of which will be moderated by Dr. Gregory Koblentz. CW topics include “Lessons learned from the U.S. Chemical Weapons Destruction Program” and “The 2023 CWC Review Conference”. Learn more and register for the virtual events here.

Publication Launch Event-Strategic Trade Review: 10th Issue

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is: In February 1964, Albert Nickel, an animal caretaker at Fort Detrick, contracted and died from a disease after he was bitten by an infected rodent. What is the name of the disease and what is its causative agent?

Shout out to Pappas G. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “On April 22, 1915, the German Army infamously unleashed more than 160 tons of chlorine gas on French trenches near which Belgian city?” is Ypres. Check out the National World War I Museum and Memorial’s page on this event.

Pandora Report: 1.27.2023

The year of the rabbit is off to one heck of a start. This week we cover COVID-19’s spread in China as the Party increasingly cracks down on Zero-COVID protesters, growing concern amount H5N1 in mammals, new insight into the history of the plague, and more. Several new publications are listed, including a fresh book from Ed Regis about the history of the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program and multiple works on misinformation’s impact on COVID-19 responses. As always, we round out with events and announcements, including multiple great upcoming professional opportunities. Happy Friday!

COVID-19 Multiplying Like Rabbits in China

China’s CDC claimed this week that cases of critically ill COVID-19 patients are down 72% from a peak earlier this month in the country, with daily deaths of hospitalized COVID-19 patients down 79% as well. This comes as Wu Zunyou, Chief Epidemiologist at China CDC, claims that 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people have already been infected. This seems like an effort to indicate that a rebound is unlikely in the coming months amid concerns that the new year travel season will cause further spread and deaths. Just last week, China claimed to have 60,000 COVID-19 deaths in the month since it rolled back its notorious Zero-COVID policies, a number far below the one million some models estimated the country will suffer this winter.

However, CNBC notes, “…some experts said that figure probably vastly undercounts the full impact, as it excludes those who die at home, and because many doctors have said they are discouraged from citing Covid as a cause of death.” This understanding better aligns with reports of over-crowded funeral homes and crematoriums, and reports of coffin makers and funeral decoration companies repeatedly selling out of their products amid the spread. Because of these discrepancies, many are doubtful of the government’s official statistics.

At the same time, reports of Zero-COVID protesters being arrested or intimidated are mounting. Four women in Beijing are known to have been arrested in connection with these protests, seemingly in retaliation for their role in what has been described as “the boldest challenge to the Communist Party’s rule in decades and an embarrassing affront to its leader, Xi Jinping.” The New York Times explains the Party’s need to do this, writing “The party seems determined to warn off anyone who may have been emboldened by the remarkable outburst of public discontent, which was followed just days later by Beijing’s abrupt decision to abandon Covid restrictions. Since then, domestic challenges have mounted: Youth unemployment is high, the economy is slowing, and Covid infections and deaths have accelerated.”

The same piece continues, “The party is also working to discredit the protesters by casting them as tools of malevolent foreign powers. Beijing has long dismissed dissent at home — from calls for women’s rights to pro-democracy activism to ethnic unrest — as the result of Western-backed subversion. The protests against “zero Covid” were no exception: One Chinese diplomat suggested that some of the demonstrators had been “bought by external forces.”

Chunyun, the Lunar New Year travel period in China, typically lasts from mid-January through late-February, meaning opportunities for spread in rural parts of the country are far from over, despite China CDC’s apparent claims to the contrary. The continued supply of highly suspect statistics and crackdowns on Zero-COVID protesters presents a troubling situation and indicates that the Party has done anything but change its ways.

Thinking of Offering a Nice Egg in This Trying Time? Mink Again

US egg prices skyrocketed in price by more than 137% between December 2021 and December 2022, leaving many in constant sticker shock at the grocery store as this once reliably cheap staple becomes increasingly expensive. Much of this is attributed to outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1), which has been spreading in US flocks since January 2022, resulting in cullings of over 57 million birds across industrial and backyard flocks. However, over the past year, this virus has also demonstrated its ability to spread from birds to mammals, with infections found in several species in the US so far, including raccoons, foxes, seals, grizzly bears, and, most recently, minks. Naturally, this had led to increased concern about potential spread into other mammal populations.

“Transmission electron microscopic image of two Influenza A (H5N1) virions, a type of bird flu virus Note the glycoprotein spikes along the surface of the virion and as a stippled appearance of the viral envelope encasing each virion.” Credit: CDC PHIL

Nature covered this story this week, writing “Until this particular outbreak, all mammalian infections could be attributed to direct contact with virus-contaminated material, says Hualan Chen, a virologist at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in China. For example, animals that ingest wild-bird droppings, or that prey on infected animals, can develop the disease. But its spread between mammals “implies that this H5N1 virus may pose a higher risk to public health”, Chen says.”

A new article in Eurosurveillance discusses the alarming spread of HPAI A(H5N1) at an American mink farm in Galicia, Spain in October 2022. In it, Agüero et al. explain that the farm experienced an acute increase in its mortality rate (.77% versus an expected range of .2-.3%), prompting the facility’s clinical veterinarian to collect samples from affected animals. These animals tested positive for H5N1, and “Post-mortem examination revealed haemorrhagic pneumonia or red hepatisation of the lungs as the most notable lesions”

The authors further explain the set-up of the farm, which housed 51,986 minks, writing “The minks were housed in wire netting cages placed in rows and situated in a series of over 30 partially open barns, which provided overhead protection but not total shelter of their sides. The minks were fed with raw fish and poultry by-products, cereals and blood meal. Poultry farms and avian slaughterhouses supplying the poultry by-products were located in Galicia. Up to 10 January 2023, H5N1 poultry outbreaks have not been reported from this region.”

The outbreak soon peaked, with a weekly mortality rate of 4.3% documented between October 17 and 23. Culling measures were ordered quickly, and all minks from infected pens were culled by November 17, along with destruction of all carcasses, fomites, and waste. Of the farm’s 12 workers, 11 were in contact with infected and culled animals, though none of them tested positive and they all completed quarantine without any problems. However, as the authors note in their abstract, “The identified viruses belong to clade 2.3.4.4b, which is responsible of the ongoing epizootic in Europe. An uncommon mutation (T271A) in the PB2 gene with potential public health implications was found. Our investigations indicate onward mink transmission of the virus may have occurred in the affected farm.”

While the mink farm seems to have been thorough in its efforts to stop this outbreak, there are concerns that this new variant may be circulating in wild bird populations. Nature writes, “But Puryear thinks that because the new variant contains genetic material from gull flu, it’s likely that at least some of its genetic changes arose in gulls before entering the mink farm. This means that a strain containing those mutations is probably still circulating in the bird population. But for human populations, the outlook is still good: if the new strain did start to infect people, health authorities could probably produce a vaccine quickly, and the antiviral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) can reduce the severity of the disease.”

The Nature news piece concludes with, “The potential risk to wild animals is greater. Bird flu has consistently caused high levels of sickness and death among wild birds and mammals over the past year, and how the new variant will affect that trend remains to be seen. “We just simply don’t know,” says Puryear.”

Shake Ups and Mess Ups at the Department of Health and Human Services

CDC Takes Major Steps in Revamp

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced a number of high-level changes to her agency this week, including the creation of the Office of Health Equity and the Office of Public Health Data, Surveillance, and Technology. These are steps taken in light of last year’s internal review that found, among other things, that the agency struggled with appropriately and rapidly sharing scientific findings, communications in general, and that it needed to strengthen relationships with federal, state, and local partners. Furthermore, most of the organizations under CDC will now report directly to the Office of the Director, moving away from what has been described as a “Community of Practice structure”.

MedPage Today explained this leadership re-structuring, writing “Today, additional details about that leadership structure became clear. There will be a centralized leadership team of experts housed within the director’s office, which will include the director of the CDC/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; the principal deputy director; the deputy director for program and science/chief medical officer; the deputy director for policy, communications, and legislative affairs/chief strategy officer; the deputy director for global health; the chief operating officer; and the chief of staff.”

“These changes will improve efficiency, speed decision-making, and strengthen the communication of scientific information to the American public, ensuring CDC’s science reaches the public in an understandable, accessible, and implementable manner as quickly as possible,” an unnamed staffer told The Hill.

OIG Report Finds NIH and EcoHealth Alliance Fell Short in Monitoring and Oversight

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at HHS released this week the findings of its audit of the National Institutes of Health’s grants to the EcoHealth Alliance. This audit was initiated because of concerns over NIH’s grant awards to EcoHealth as well as EcoHealth’s subawards to foreign entities. OIG aimed to “…determine whether NIH monitored grants to EcoHealth in accordance with Federal requirements, and whether EcoHealth used and managed its NIH grant funds in accordance with Federal requirements.”

The Office found that, “Despite identifying potential risks associated with research being performed under the EcoHealth awards, we found that NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address EcoHealth’s compliance with some requirements. Although NIH and EcoHealth had established monitoring procedures, we found deficiencies in complying with those procedures limited NIH and EcoHealth’s ability to effectively monitor Federal grant awards and subawards to understand the nature of the research conducted, identify potential problem areas, and take corrective action. Using its discretion, NIH did not refer the research to HHS for an outside review for enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ePPPs) because it determined the research did not involve and was not reasonably anticipated to create, use, or transfer an ePPP. However, NIH added a special term and condition in EcoHealth’s awards and provided limited guidance on how EcoHealth should comply with that requirement. We found that NIH was only able to conclude that research resulted in virus growth that met specified benchmarks based on a late progress report from EcoHealth that NIH failed to follow up on until nearly 2 years after its due date. Based on these findings, we conclude that NIH missed opportunities to more effectively monitor research. With improved oversight, NIH may have been able to take more timely corrective actions to mitigate the inherent risks associated with this type of research.”

Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz was quoted in the New York Timespiece on this report, saying “Although concerns were identified by NIAID staff, the proposal was not referred to NIAID’s review committee for further consideration.” He continued, saying “On paper, NIAID staff were encouraged to ‘err on the side of caution’ in identifying and referring such proposals…but in practice it looks like they erred on the side of complacency.” 

Woman Pleads Guilty to Mailing Ricin Letters in 2020

Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier pleaded guilty this week in a US District Court “…to sending a threatening letter containing homemade ricin to then-President Donald J. Trump at the White House in September 2020, and eight similar letters, each containing ricin, to Texas State law enforcement officials.” Ferrier, a dual French-Canadian national, holds a French engineering degree and admitted in her plea agreements that she made ricin in her Quebec home in September 2020. According to the FBI, “Ferrier placed the ricin in envelopes containing letters she wrote to then-President Trump at the White House and to eight Texas State law enforcement officials.”

“Ferrier was detained in the State of Texas for around 10 weeks in the spring of 2019, and she believed that the law enforcement officials were connected to her period of detention. In early September 2020, Ferrier used the Twitter social media service to propose that someone should “please shoot [T]rump in the face.” The letters in the envelopes contained threatening language, and the letter addressed to then-President Trump instructed him to “[g]ive up and remove [his] application for this election.” Ferrier mailed each of the threatening ricin letters from Canada to the United States. Ferrier then drove a car from Canada to the Peace Bridge Border Crossing in Buffalo, New York, on Sept. 20, 2020, where border patrol officials found her in possession of a loaded firearm, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and other weapons.”

Ferrier is scheduled for sentencing on April 26. She faces 262 months imprisonment if her plea agreements are accepted.

An Oldie, But a (Not So) Goodie: Y. Pestis Strains May Have Been Around Centuries Before Outbreaks

A new article in Communications Biology discusses how Yersinia pestis spread globally over longer periods of time than previously estimated. Eaton et al. estimate that the strain of Y. pestis responsible for the Black Death in the mid-14th century diverged from the ancestral strain as early as 1214, while the one responsible for the Plague of Justinian may have cropped up between 272 and 465–up to nearly 270 years before the epidemic began in 541. “‘It shows that each major plague pandemic has likely emerged many decades to centuries earlier than what the historical record suggests,” study coauthor and evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, director of McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Centre in Canada,” said in a statement to CNN.

The authors write in their abstract: “Plague has an enigmatic history as a zoonotic pathogen. This infectious disease will unexpectedly appear in human populations and disappear just as suddenly. As a result, a long-standing line of inquiry has been to estimate when and where plague appeared in the past. However, there have been significant disparities between phylogenetic studies of the causative bacterium, Yersinia pestis, regarding the timing and geographic origins of its reemergence. Here, we curate and contextualize an updated phylogeny of Y. pestis using 601 genome sequences sampled globally. Through a detailed Bayesian evaluation of temporal signal in subsets of these data we demonstrate that a Y. pestis-wide molecular clock is unstable. To resolve this, we developed a new approach in which each Y. pestis population was assessed independently, enabling us to recover substantial temporal signal in five populations, including the ancient pandemic lineages which we now estimate may have emerged decades, or even centuries, before a pandemic was historically documented from European sources. Despite this methodological advancement, we only obtain robust divergence dates from populations sampled over a period of at least 90 years, indicating that genetic evidence alone is insufficient for accurately reconstructing the timing and spread of short-term plague epidemics.”

Read the entire article here.

“Produced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), this digitally colorized scanning electron microscopic (SEM) image depicts a number of yellow-colored, Yersinia pestis bacteria, that had gathered on the proventricular spines of a Xenopsylla cheopis flea. These spines line the interior of the proventriculus, a part of the flea’s digestive system. The Y. pestis bacterium is the pathogen that causes bubonic plague.” Credit: CDC PHIL

It’s 90 Seconds to Midnight (That’s Not Good)

“This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.” Read the Bulletin’s statement here (also available in РУССКИЙ and УКРАЇНСЬКА).

Say “Hello” to the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science

The Nuclear Threat Initiative recently announced the creation of the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science (IBBIS), an organization “trying to prevent dramatic advances in bioscience from unleashing engineered pathogens from the lab, and wants research funders, scientists and journals to help.” NTI explains: “NTI is working with international stakeholders to establish the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science (IBBIS), an independent organization dedicated to reducing emerging biological risks associated with technology advances. A core element of the IBBIS mission will be to strengthen international biosecurity norms and develop innovative, practical tools and incentives to uphold them. IBBIS has a broadly defined mission, but initially it will focus on preventing the misuse of DNA synthesis technology—with the understanding that it will expand its remit over time.”

“IBBIS will collaborate with stakeholders across the global bioscience and biotechnology enterprise including academia, industry, the public health community, governments and philanthropy. These activities will complement the important work of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, and other national, regional, and international organizations. NTI’s work to establish IBBIS is rooted in the vision of a world in which bioscience and biotechnology flourish, with safeguards against deliberate or accidental misuse with potentially catastrophic consequences.”

David Matthews discusses IBBIS in-depth, including the fraught geopolitical situation it faces, in this piece for Science Business.

The Lancet Series on One Health and Global Health Security

Check out this recent series from the Lancet: “Following the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the on-going global COVID-19 pandemic, the One Health approach (bridging the Animal-Environmental-Human Health interface)  has rapidly gained political and financial support, particularly in regional and transcontinental initiatives to improve Global Health Security, including through recently established institutions like Africa CDC and other multidisciplinary consortia. This four-paper Lancet Series explores the adoption of One Health approaches to improve health security and include an analysis of the current landscape of preventive, surveillance, and response measures in outbreak situations of emerging and re-emerging zoonotic infectious diseases with epidemic potential as well as other potential public health emergencies such as neglected endemic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, environmental and chemical hazards and natural disasters.”

“Combating Misinformation as a Core Function of Public Health”

Knudsen et al. discuss the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s role in countering misinformation in this New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst piece: “The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene determined that the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 was having a harmful health impact, particularly on communities of color with low vaccination rates. It established a dedicated Misinformation Response Unit to monitor messages containing dangerous misinformation presented on multiple media platforms, including social media, non-English media, and international sites, and proliferating in community forums. The Misinformation Response Unit and the Health Department collaborated with more than 100 community partners to tailor culturally appropriate, scientifically accurate messages to different populations. The Health Department and its partners were able to rapidly identify messages containing inaccurate information about Covid-19 vaccines, treatment, and other issues and to support the delivery of accurate information to various populations. Although the harms of misinformation and benefits of addressing the problem require additional evaluation, internal and external interviews suggested that the Misinformation Response Unit helped the Health Department counter misinformation and disseminate accurate scientific information to the community, thus improving health and vaccine equity during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“Fault Lines: The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation”

This new report from the Council of Canadian Academies includes a number of important findings, including that COVID-19 misinformation cost at least 2,800 Canadian lives and CAD 300 million in hospital expenses over a period of just nine months. “Fault Lines details how science and health misinformation can proliferate and its impacts on individuals, communities, and society. It explores what makes us susceptible to misinformation and how we might use these insights to improve societal resilience to it. The report includes a model of the impacts of COVID‑19 misinformation on vaccination rates in Canada, producing quantitative estimates of its impacts on our health and the economy, and situating these within a broader context of societal and economic harms.”

“Battling Biological Threats: Complacency, Progress, or Both?”

“As 2023 opens, there is apprehension that partisan divisions and politicized health security approaches may worsen as the United States moves into a divided government of ultra-thin margins. But over the course of 2022, several important new national security directives and policies and bipartisan legislative actions significantly advanced thinking on health security and what is required to better protect Americans—proving that progress remains in reach, despite tough odds. Global health security, including biodefense, has been elevated to new prominence in U.S. national security thinking. The Biodefense Posture Review, expected to be released in early 2023, is mandated to unify and modernize DOD’s broad, comprehensive biodefense capabilities, and synchronize these efforts with those of other federal departments in line with the recently released National Defense and Biodefense Strategies. The United States must be resolute and clear, leaning forward not backwards, investing in new capabilities sustained over many years to protect Americans and the larger world against future dangerous pathogens. In a new commentary, Thomas R. Cullison and J. Stephen Morrison argue that it remains possible to bridge divides and make measurable progress to prepare the United States for inevitable future biological threats.” Read this CSIS report here.

“The Pentagon’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program Moves Towards Modernization, Yet Congress Slashes Funding”

Dan Regan discusses DoD’s seemingly mismatched objectives and funding decisions in this piece for the Council on Strategic Risks. He writes, “To achieve its mission set, including investing in emerging biotechnologies and bolstering industrial capacity to scale MCMs to novel threats, developing and investing in stand-off pathogen early warning detection, and advancing protective equipment for the Joint Force, the CBDP budget requires a nearly two-fold increase from the President’s request of $1.32 billion in FY23 to $3 billion for FY24. However, Congress unfortunately just dealt a 7% cut to chemical and biodefense programs with the FY23 omnibus spending bill, following years of declining funds for CBDP. As the FY24 Presidential Budget Request is being drafted, the Biden Administration and Congress should consider significant increases to CBDP’s budget, along with the other biodefense and global health security priorities outlined in the 10 + 10 over 10 strategy, to combat biological threats.”

“Virology Under the Microscope–a Call for Rational Discourse”

In this commentary in mBio, more than 130 authors call for a return to rational discourse about virology and its role in modern issues like pandemic response and debates over GoF research. “Viruses have brought humanity many challenges: respiratory infection, cancer, neurological impairment and immunosuppression to name a few. Virology research over the last 60+ years has responded to reduce this disease burden with vaccines and antivirals. Despite this long history, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented attention to the field of virology. Some of this attention is focused on concern about the safe conduct of research with human pathogens. A small but vocal group of individuals has seized upon these concerns – conflating legitimate questions about safely conducting virus-related research with uncertainties over the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The result has fueled public confusion and, in many instances, ill-informed condemnation of virology. With this article, we seek to promote a return to rational discourse. We explain the use of gain-of-function approaches in science, discuss the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2 and outline current regulatory structures that provide oversight for virological research in the United States. By offering our expertise, we – a broad group of working virologists – seek to aid policy makers in navigating these controversial issues. Balanced, evidence-based discourse is essential to addressing public concern while maintaining and expanding much-needed research in virology.”

“CRISPR Technology: A Decade of Genome Editing is Only the Beginning”

Wang and Doudna discuss the first decade of CRISPR in Science: “In the decade since the publication of CRISPR-Cas9 as a genome-editing technology, the CRISPR toolbox and its applications have profoundly changed basic and applied biological research. Wang and Doudna now review the origins and utility of CRISPR-based genome editing, the successes and current limitations of the technology, and where innovation and engineering are needed. The authors describe important advances in the development of CRISPR genome-editing technology and make predictions about where the field is headed. They also highlight specific examples in medicine and agriculture that show how CRISPR is already affecting society, with exciting opportunities for the future. —DJ”

“Zombie Viruses from the Arctic”

Jean-Michel Claverie’s new piece in Think Global Health discusses the threat global warming poses to global health by threatening Earth’s permafrost, potentially releasing ancient microbes. Claverie explains the evolution of this threat and how it may evolve throughout the piece, writing in part “This science fiction scenario became more realistic in 2015 when an international research team succeeded in resurrecting several viruses isolated from permafrost dating back 30,000 years. Following additional experiments, it is now clear that a significant proportion of prehistorical viruses can remain infectious for even longer periods of time. This article reviews the reality of the risks that their release might represent for the future.”

Science, Secrecy, and the Smithsonian

New from Ed Regis, author of The Biology of Doom, is this book, Science, Secrecy, and the Smithsonian:

“This is the story of how the Smithsonian Institute became intertwined in a secret biological warfare project.”

“During the 1960s, the Smithsonian Institution undertook a large-scale biological survey of a group of uninhabited tropical islands in the Pacific. It was one of the largest and most sweeping biological survey programs of all time, a six-year-long enterprise during which Smithsonian personnel banded 1.8 million birds, captured live specimens and took blood samples, and catalogued the avian, mammalian, reptile, and plant life of 48 Pacific islands.”

“But there was a twist. The study had been initiated, funded, and was overseen by the U.S. Biological Laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The home of the American biological warfare program. In signing the contract to perform the survey, the Smithsonian became a literal subcontractor to a secret biological warfare project. And by participating in the survey, the Smithsonian scientists were paving the way for top-secret biological warfare tests in the Pacific.”

“Critics charged the Smithsonian with having entered into a Faustian bargain that made the institution complicit in the sordid business of biological warfare, a form of combat which, if it were ever put into practice and used against human populations, could cause mass disease, suffering, and death. The Smithsonian had no proper role in any such activities, said the critics, and should never have undertaken the survey.”

Science, Secrecy, and the Smithsonian: The Strange History of the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program explores the workings of the survey program, places it in its historical context, describes the military tests that followed, and evaluates the critical objections to the Smithsonian’s participation in the project.”

Jonathan Tucker CBW Symposium

“The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies cordially invites you to the 11th annual Jonathan Tucker Symposium on chemical and biological weapons issues on February 9th and 10th, 2023.” BW topics include “Revisiting the Siege of Caffa & Catapulting Cadavers” and “Governance of Dual-Use Biological Research,” the latter of which will be moderated by Dr. Gregory Koblentz. CW topics include “Lessons learned from the U.S. Chemical Weapons Destruction Program” and “The 2023 CWC Review Conference”. Learn more and register for the virtual events here.

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

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

High School and College Student Internship: Data Analytics for Elite Young Scholars – Biology and Medical Science Experience

“This Young Scholars Research Program is designed for Elite High School Students and Undergrad Students, who are interested in pursuing their study and/or career in the fields of biology or medical science with emphasis on advanced data analytics. You will work with our esteemed George Mason University faculty members on a specific team project. The team will consist of about three to four members of both high school and undergraduate students. The project will be assigned to the students at the beginning of the program based on the preference indicated by the students prior to the program. Two outputs will be expected from each team at the end of the programs: i) a final paper which will be published on the Center for Biomedical Science and Policy website as well as a special issue of World Medical & Health Policy; and ii) Team presentation at a symposium at which students compete for prizes.”

“During this program, students will be participating in a research project applying some of the following methods, including but not limited to biostatistics using R or Stata, data visualization using QGIS or ArcGIS, and network visualization using Gephi.”

“During this program, students will be participating in a research project applying some of the following methods, including but not limited to biostatistics using R or Stata, data visualization using QGIS or ArcGIS, and network visualization using Gephi.”

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “On April 22, 1915, the German Army infamously unleashed more than 160 tons of chlorine gas on French trenches near which Belgian city?”

Shout out to Morgan M. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 1985, an American extremist group’s compound was raided by more than 300 law enforcement officers from several federal, state, and local agencies following a three-day standoff. Among other items, officers seized about thirty gallons of potassium cyanide the group intended to use to poison water supplies of several cities. What was the name of this group?” is the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord.

Pandora Report: 1.20.2023

Happy (almost) Lunar New Year! This week we are covering several updates, including China’s COVID-19 cases and fatalities, a new GAO report on HHS’ oversight of high-risk research, and more. We also have several new publications this week, an interesting podcast episode on PPE, and plenty of newly-launched resources and open opportunities later on in the issue.

China Calims 60K COVID-19 Deaths as Lunar New Year Travel Surges

This week, China said it has recorded nearly 60,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 since lifting Zero COVID restrictions last month, up from the 37 it previously claimed had died since December 7. Previously, the country had reported just over 5,000 COVID-19 deaths in total since the initial outbreak of the disease in Wuhan in late 2019. The New York Times explains this, writing “Until Saturday, China had reported a total of just 5,272 Covid deaths since the pandemic began in the city of Wuhan in late 2019. That measure was narrowly defined as deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure caused by Covid. The new figure released Saturday included those who had Covid, but also died from other underlying illnesses.”

Reuters explains this figure further, writing “China recorded 59,938 Covid-related deaths from Dec. 8 to Jan. 12, Jiao Yahui, an official with China’s National Health Commission, said at a news conference in Beijing. That figure included 5,503 people who died of respiratory failure directly caused by Covid. Another 54,435 fatalities were linked to other underlying illnesses, Ms. Jiao said.” Reuters also notes that Jiao claims China was unable to release this information sooner because it “required a comprehensive examination of hospital reporting.”

It remains unclear whether or not China has changed the way it counts COVID-19 deaths so that it includes those with underlying conditions that contributed to their death from COVID-19. Furthermore, many are still skeptical of these numbers, and concerns about a further spike amid holiday travel persist. Combined with other factors like the economic impact this has had in China, and attempts to stamp out online discourse about the Party’s handling of the pandemic by blocking “fake information” that would cause a “gloomy sentiment”, this troubling situation is continuing to evolve.

Russia Announces Criminal Case Against Unnamed US Citizen Accused of Espionage Related to “Biological Topics”

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced this week it has opened a case against a US citizen, citing allegations of “…engaging in “espionage” related to “biological topics.” According to The Guardian, ““The American is suspected of collecting intelligence information in the biological sphere, directed against the security of the Russian Federation,” it added, without any further details.” Reuters reports that “The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the “unconfirmed reports” that Russia has opened a criminal case against a U.S. citizen on suspicion of espionage.” Reuters continued, writing “We’re looking into this matter and we’ll continue to monitor,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on Thursday….Patel added Russia does not generally abide by obligations to provide timely notification of the detention of U.S. citizens in Russia.”

New GAO Report–“Public Health Preparedness: HHS Could Improve Oversight of Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released this report discussing its study reviewing the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) oversight policies and programs (“the Framework”). The report indicates that “GAO found that HHS’s Framework does not fully meet the key elements of effective oversight identified in past work. For example, the Framework does not provide a standard to help funding agencies interpret what “reasonably anticipated” means. Until HHS develops and documents such a standard, the Framework allows for subjective and potentially inconsistent interpretations of the requirement—leaving HHS without assurance the department is reviewing all necessary research proposals.”

The report, available here, discusses the GAO study and findings at length. It concludes with three recommendations–1) “The Secretary of Health and Human Services should work with HHS funding agencies to develop and document a standard for “reasonably anticipated” to ensure consistency in identifying research for departmental review that is “reasonably anticipated to create, transfer or use enhanced potential pandemic pathogens,”; 2) “The Secretary of Health and Human Services should work with HHS funding agencies to identify and share non-sensitive information with researchers, Congress, and the public about the departmental review process for research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, including information on composition and expertise of those involved in the review process and how the evaluation criteria are applied,” and 3) “As HHS and CDC deliberate any changes to the DSAT program, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should assess and document the risk posed by the limitations of the existing DSAT exemptions for public health emergencies and seek legislative authority as needed.”

“This photograph depicts a microbiologist in what had been the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while she was conducting an experiment inside a negatively-pressurized biological safety cabinet (BSC) within the Biosafety Level 3-enhanced laboratory. The airflow into the BSC helps prevent any airborne virus particles from escaping the confines of the cabinet, and as part of her personal protective equipment (PPE), she was wearing a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR), which was filtering the air that she was breathing.”| Credit: CDC PHIL

No More Biowordscramble–NIST Releases Bioeconomy Lexicon

Biosecurity, bioenergy, bioinspired, biorisk…If you have ever started to feel like the new trend in security jargon is adding “bio” to an already existing word, this one is for you. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released its bioeconomy lexicon as directed in the Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. NIST explains the need for this, writing “Biotechnology and biomanufacturing are increasingly vital to the global economy, including in the health care, food and agriculture, and energy sectors. Accordingly, there is a need for standardized terms and definitions to ensure a common understanding of the concepts, data, technical developments, and workforce opportunities as the bioeconomy grows both domestically and internationally.”

They continue by explaining the creation of the lexicon: “This initial lexicon was developed by NIST in consultation with an interagency working group consisting of several U.S. government departments and agencies as directed in the Executive Order noted above, and reflects consideration of relevant domestic and international definitions as well as those from private sector stakeholders. The lexicon harmonizes a base set of terms and definitions with the goal of helping to enable the development of measurements and measurement methods for the bioeconomy that support uses such as economic measurement, risk assessments, and the application of machine learning and other artificial intelligence tools. This lexicon is intended to be a living document, and NIST intends to periodically engage with government and private sector stakeholders to inform future updates to the lexicon terms and definitions as appropriate.”

“Assessing the Trajectory of Biological Research and Development in the Russian Federation”

In this piece for Joint Forces Quarterly, Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall and Aurelia Attal-Juncqua offer an overview of the Soviet and Russian biological weapons programs and insight into concerns about current Russian research today. Using information from a two-round Delphi study, they discuss their findings related to “Concerns About Management, Biosecurity, and Biosafety of Dual-Use Research of Concern in the Russian Federation” and “Current State of Biotech and Biological R&D in the Russian Federation.” They conclude with a number of observations and recommendations, including insight into how science diplomacy with Russia may be harmed, writing “Historically, science diplomacy has been a useful tool to keep communication lines open when security relations are fraught and has led to positive outcomes for both science and national security. However, Russia’s invasion of the sovereign Ukrainian nation makes any bilateral engagements between the United States and Russia unconscionable at this time. These actions are unlikely to be forgotten or forgiven swiftly, and sanctions are likely to persist for some time. Eventually, at an undetermined point in the future, such engagements will certainly again prove to be important for national security and scientific advancement.”

“The Myth of the “Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb”: Knowledge, Method, and Ideology in the Study of Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Weapons”

Check out Biejan Poor Toulabi’s interesting recent article in the Journal of Global Security Studies. Abstract: “Chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) have often been characterized as a “poor man’s atomic bomb”: a cheap and easy to acquire alternative to nuclear weapons that is particularly appealing to so-called Third World states. This idea is also reflected in Western government and expert estimates that have long exaggerated the spread of CBWs, especially among states in the Global South. In this article, I break down the ways in which the idea that the spread of CBWs is prevalent and that it primarily happens among states in the Global South has come to exist and persist. By dissecting an oft-cited dataset on CBW spread, I unravel frequently occurring methodological flaws—such as conceptual confusion, misinterpretation of sources, and a bias toward proliferation charges originating from the US government—that breed and sustain inflated estimates and faulty allegations. Subsequently, I show that a dominant cognitive framework that centers on the metaphorical use of the terms “proliferation” and “poor man’s atomic bomb” primes analysts and policymakers to interpret the history and future of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as being characterized by inevitable spread, particularly among the non-Western “Other.” In conclusion, I offer ways to counter the orthodoxies of this ideology in teaching, research, and policy.”

RevCon Reports 16 and 17

CBW Events’ BioWeapons Prevention Project recently released its RevCon Report 16 and RevCon Report 17, concluding their coverage of the recent BWC Review Conference. Report 16 discusses the final day of the conference and offers reflections on RevCon as a whole. Report 17 provides an outline and discussion of the content of the Final Document. Richard Guthrie also includes discussion of what the Final Document lacks, writing “As well as what would normally be part II of the Final Document, noted above, there were a number of other elements missing. Perhaps the most significant is any substance on the processes that will be established for the review of S&T developments and the promotion of international cooperation under Article X. Other aspects which have had broad support ended up being removed in an attempt to reach consensus included creation of an Article VII database, endorsement of the Tianjin Guidelines, and any reference to gender issues.”

“118th Congress: Bioeconomy and Health Security”

In this piece for the Federation of American Scientists,  Michael A. Fisher, Sruthi Katakam and Maeve Skelly discuss opportunities the 118th Congress has to adopt policies that “help drive U.S. biotech and biomanufacturing to grow regional prosperity, deliver on conservation goals, and improve U.S. competitiveness and resilience.” They offer several ideas for improving competitiveness in the bioeconomy, safeguarding the country against biological threats, and several recommendations for appropriations. An especially interesting portion is that which is dedicated to countering global malnutrition to enhance US security, in which they write “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental impacts, and conflicts like the war in Ukraine, global rates of malnutrition are at eight percent and are forecast to become even worse. Providing life-saving treatment around the world serves a core American value of humanitarianism, and a priority for U.S. national security – the newly released National Security Strategy dedicates an entire section to food insecurity.”

In 2021 legislation, Congress directed USAID to advance programs to prevent and treat malnutrition around the world and develop a Global Nutrition Coordination Plan. That legislation also directed USAID to create the Nutrition Leadership Council, which can help elevate nutrition programs across U.S. global health interventions and foster collaboration with other sectors, development agencies, partner governments, and local actors. These are important steps to create a centralized food security program with harmonized funding – a system to deploy a more effective response to end global malnutrition and improve U.S. national security.”

“Congress should work with the Administration to begin scaling up global malnutrition assistance in FY 2024, in accord with the 2021 legislation.”

“‘Shot In The Arm’ Shows How Disinformation Can Be Deadly”

Dr. Lipi Roy discusses Shot in the Arm, a film that recently premiered at the Palm Spring International Film Festival, in this piece for Forbes. In it, she covers core elements of the film and how it contributes to the broader conversation surrounding vaccine hesitancy and disinformation going on today, consulting experts like Dr. Peter Hotez along the way. She writes in part, “Health-related misinformation can be deadly, and we must actively combat it. Healthcare professionals need to partner with finance, fashion, sports, media and entertainment industries to promote vaccines and science in general. Celebs like Hugh Jackman, Gayle King and Julia Roberts proudly – and publicly – promoted their Covid-19 vaccinations. I also believe that a politicized problem needs a political response: elected officials – guided by health experts – need to create policies to protect the public, as they did with seatbelts, air bags and bike helmets. Lastly, people who actively promote lies about science and medicine need to be held accountable. As a physician, if I lied to patients and withheld lifesaving treatments for their thyroid cancer or lupus, I would lose my medical license. Similar punitive action must be applied to people who actively propagate egregious lies about YOUR health and safety. Shot in the Arm is really the kick in the pants we ALL need to preserve the sanctity of science and protect the most vulnerable among us. Go see this film.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

PPE Breaches: Understanding the Risks and How to Respond 

“On the podcast episode “NETEC Guidance on Breach of PPE,” five NETEC [National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center] experts in personal protective equipment (PPE) talked about breaches in PPE and the importance of preparing health care workers to assess the risks and safely respond to a breach.”

One Health Approach for Effective Biodefense and Global Health Security

“The National Academy of Engineering’s Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable will convene a webinar on January 24 from 1-2 P.M. ET to discuss the latest National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan. Discussions will focus on the collaborative and transdisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach, per the Plan, for effective biodefense and global health security. Speakers (below) will explore the role of cross-sectoral partnerships as well as innovative approaches to achieve the goals and objectives outlined in the Strategy.” Learn more and register here.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) Meeting

The next NSABB meeting will take place virtually on January 27 at 1 pm EST. This meeting will cover “Draft Findings: Ensuring Biosecurity Oversight Frameworks Keep Pace with the Future of Science.” Learn more and register here.

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

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

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

Call for Participants: Assess Biosafety and Biosecurity Oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern and Pathogens of Pandemic Potential

Kathleen Vogel and David Gillum of Arizona State University are conducting a research project to “…understand how dual use research of concern and pathogens of pandemic potential are regulated and how biosafety and biosecurity of this work is implemented, and if there are opportunities to improve the long-term benefits and minimize risks associated with this scientific work.” Their study includes a survey on this topic, which is accepting responses through January 27. Learn more and take the 20-25 minute survey here.

Notice of Funding Opportunity: Evidence-based Approaches to Implementing Biosafety in Diagnostic and Research Laboratories

This opportunity is offered by the Elizabeth R. Griffin Program at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. Stakeholders can review this funding opportunity and submit applications here. Applications are due February 28.

Wilson Center Launches International Cooperation for Pandemic Preparedness Website

“As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth year, the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center launched a new website today to address the changing paradigms in international health law and the critical need for strengthening global health security for the future.”

“This dynamic website, International Cooperation for Pandemic Preparedness, features renowned international health experts who break down eight critical issues the pandemic exacerbated, revealed, or created. Through video interviews and written analyses, the interactive examines what can happen at the international level when countries and international organizations work together to find needed solutions. In light of heightened demands for a pandemic treaty under the World Health Organization, expert advice on what is achievable at the international level has never been more critical to combating future COVID-19 variants and future pandemics.”

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “In 1985, an American extremist group’s compound was raided by more than 300 law enforcement officers from several federal, state, and local agencies following a three-day standoff. Among other items, officers seized about thirty gallons of potassium cyanide the group intended to use to poison water supplies of several cities. What was the name of this group?”

Shout out to Tracy S. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 1980, a Frenchman entered a cave while visiting Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya. A week later he became seriously ill, eventually dying in a Nairobi hospital. Which cave did he enter and what disease killed him?” is Kitum Cave and Marburg virus disease.

Pandora Report: 1.13.2023

Happy Friday! This week we cover DoD’s upcoming chem-bio defense changes, a recent accelerated preview from researchers at Boston University’s NEIDL, the arrest of an Iranian man in Germany on suspicion of planning an attack using ricin and cyanide, and more. We also include several new publications and podcasts, including our own Dr. Saskia Popescu’s piece about her experience catching COVID-19 as an epidemiologist working in infection prevention. We also have new events listed, including an upcoming Schar School graduate open house where you can learn more about the Biodefense Graduate Program. Stay safe and enjoy the MLK Day weekend!

Pentagon to Overhaul Chem-Bio Defense Despite Budget Trimming

Amid anticipation of the release of its first biodefense posture review, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced this week it is overhauling its approach to countering chemical and biological weapons. In a new document, “Approach for Research, Development and Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures and Test Products,” the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense explains that the Chemical and Biological Defense Program will expand the foci of its medical countermeasure development efforts. According to Politico, rather than continuing to focus on developing countermeasures for a specific list of threat agents, “Officials are launching a new plan to develop medical treatments, vaccines and personal protective equipment that can adapt to a range of evolving biological and chemical threats, said Ian Watson, DoD’s deputy assistant secretary for chemical and biological defense.”

Politico continued, quoting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense Ian Watson-“U.S. officials are particularly concerned about adversaries that already have advanced chemical and biological capabilities and have proven themselves willing to use them. Russia and China now have the technology necessary both to tweak current threats — from toxins to naturally occurring pathogens — to make them more deadly and to create new weapons, Watson said.”

“U.S. Sailors and Marines, assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), take part in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) mass casualty drill on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) East China Sea, Oct. 22, 2018. Wasp, flagship of Wasp Amphibious Ready Group, with embarked 31st MEU, is operating in the Indo-Pacific region to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force for any type of contingency. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker)

The same article referenced Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, explaining “Gregory Koblentz…said the decision by the administration to look more holistically at chemical and biological threats is a strategic national security decision — one that could help the U.S. keep pace with countries such as China, Russia and Iran.” Koblentz was quoted later, saying “There’s definitely a much higher kind of salience and appreciation of how nation-states are using these technologies,” Koblentz said. “Until fairly recently, the focus has mostly been on ISIS and Al Qaeda using chemical and biological terrorism. This [strategy] might be another kind of paradigm shift.”

However, this announcement comes amid cuts to DoD’s chem-bio program funding overall. Roll Call reported recently that the nearly $2 billion in funding dedicated to all these programs will be cut by about $126 million, even in light of their comparatively slow growth and concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the Chemical Biological Defense Program received $1.26 billion in appropriations in the last omnibus spending bill-$66 million less than was requested.

Roll Call discussed these funding concerns with Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs under President Obama, and David Lasseter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction under President Trump and a visiting fellow at George Mason’s National Security Institute. Both indicated the funding for these programs needs to more than double, with Lasseter saying “Increasing the current investment to around $3 billion per year, while ensuring efficient and effective program execution, will enable the CBDP to develop cutting-edge capabilities like rapid, ruggedized point-of-care diagnostics, stand-off detection, predictive wearables, advanced protective suits and innovative platform technologies as well as stock and replenish existing medical countermeasures.”

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Check out this recent post from George Mason University about a Mason research team’s work to help USAMRIID find broad-spectrum therapeutics for to treat HFV infections-“Mason Collaboration Receives $3.2 million to Help Military Personnel Combat Hemorrhagic Diseases”

Months After Firestorm Surrounding SARS-CoV-2 Experiments, NEIDL Publishes Article on BA.1 Attenuation

In late October, news and social media were full of debate regarding a preprint authored by researchers at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. As Science explained at the time of the controversy, “They took the gene for Omicron’s surface protein, or spike protein, which SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells and added it to the genome of a “backbone” virus—a variant of SARS-CoV-2 from Washington state that was identified soon after the pandemic first emerged in Wuhan, China, in early 2020. The objective was to tease apart whether Omicron’s spike protein explains why it is less pathogenic (meaning it causes less severe disease). The answer could lead to improved COVID-19 diagnostic tests and better ways to manage the disease, the preprint authors say.” As there had been no approval from NIAID, debates swirled over the benefits and safety of the research, and if it violated rules on NIH-funded gain of function (GoF) studies.

Now the same team has published an article that is available for accelerated preview in Nature, again attracting attention and sparking debate. This comes amid broader debates about risky research, including GoF research itself and calls to broaden definitions of what kinds of experiments require special reviews and safety measures. In April last year, Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz delivered a statement addressing this topic to the NIH, highlighting the problems the term “gain of function” has brought in policy debates. In his remarks regarding the Department of Health and Human Services Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens, Koblentz said “The first positive aspect of the Framework is that it does not use the term “gain of function.” The introduction of this term into the discussions on dual-use research in 2011-2012 triggered a long and unproductive debate about how to define this category of research. Carving out “gain of function” as somehow distinct or separate from dual-use research muddied the debate and continues to cause confusion today.”

This topic recently garnered attention again as the omnibus appropriations bill progressed through Congress before being signed into law by President Biden. As we discussed last week, the new legislation also takes aim at GoF research, after GOP lawmakers pushed the administration to halt federally-funded GoF research, citing beliefs that such research is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. On page 3,354 of the more than 4,100 page bill, it reads, “(1) IN GENERAL.—Beginning not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall not fund research conducted by a foreign entity at a facility located in a country of concern, in the estimation of the Director of National Intelligence or the head of another relevant Federal department or agency, as appropriate, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, involving pathogens of pandemic potential or biological agents or toxins listed pursuant to section 351A(a)(1) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 262a(a)(1)).” It also requires the Office of Science and Technology Policy to review and update federal policy on potential pandemic pathogen research.

German Police Detain Iranian Man Accused of Plotting Attack, Acquiring Cyanide and Ricin

This week, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reported that German police arrested a 32-year-old Iranian man on suspicion of planning an attack motivated by Islamic extremism. Police wearing protective gear entered the man’s apartment in Castrop-Rauxel, northwest of Dortmund, late Saturday night. According to Herbert Reul, State Minister for Internal Affairs, the police acted on a “serious tip” that prompted them to respond the very night they received it. News reports indicate that an allied intelligence service alerted Germany that the man was planning an attack. Though he is thought to have acquired cyanide and ricin, it is unclear how developed his plan was. However, Düsseldorf prosecutors later told DPA that “no toxic substances” were found in the initial search of the apartment.

Outgoing Eskom CEO Survives Cyanide Poisoning

Andre de Ruyter, the outgoing CEO of Eskom-South Africa’s state-owned electricity company-, reportedly survived an attempt to poison him with cyanide last month. De Ruyter, who will step down in March, fell ill after he was served a cup of coffee laced with the agent on December 12. According to Insider, “After drinking the coffee, De Ruyter became “weak, dizzy, and confused,” EE Business Intelligence reported, citing an unnamed source. He was shaking, vomiting, and eventually collapsed, the source said. The Financial Times reported sources as saying that De Ruyter was nauseous and became confused after the drinking the coffee. According to the FT, the coffee machine at Eskom’s office was out of order at the time of the incident, and he was served a coffee from a different source.”

The same news report also explained that, “Since taking over as CEO of Eskom, De Ruyter has attempted to crack down on corruption within South Africa’s energy sector, EE Business Intelligence reported. He has, however, also clashed with the country’s government, and in December, Eskom was accused of “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state” by South Africa’s energy minister Gwede Mantashe.”

Prison Colony Where Alexei Navalny is Held Suffers Flu Outbreak

Alexei Navalny, the prominent Putin critic who survived an attempted poisoning in 2020, is reportedly in worsening health amid a flu outbreak in the colony he is held in east of Moscow. Navalny claims that prison authorities intentionally placed a man sick with influenza next to him as a “bacteriological weapon,” and that he has been denied basic medications despite suffering a fever and cough. Last month, Navalny said he suffers from worsening back pain from long periods of time spent in the colony’s punishment cell and that he has been injected with multiple unknown drugs. He has also Tweeted through his lawyers that the authorities intentionally moved a mentally unstable man who howls at night into a cell near him.

Though his current symptoms are not life-threatening, there is speculation that this could be part of a deliberate attempt to make Navalny, Putin’s most out-spoken domestic supporter, die from natural causes. The Schar School’s Dr. Mark N. Katz, an expert on Russia, told Newsweek “”If Putin had wanted Navalny dead, he could have easily arranged for this.” He added “Putin may think he’ll be better off if Navalny dies from illness than directly at the hand of the state.” Russia denies any role in the 2020 attack against Navalny, which used a Novichok agent, a group of nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union. Navalny is currently serving an 11.5 year prison sentence on trumped up charges supporters say were created to silence him.

“Understanding Biosafety and Biosecurity in Ukraine”

Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser, Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London recently published this piece in Health Security. Their abstract reads: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was accompanied by unfounded Russian allegations of bioweapon activities in Ukraine conducted by the United States and its allies. While false, such allegations can cause substantial damage to disarmament efforts and international cooperation for strengthening disease surveillance and global health security. The purpose of this article is to describe Ukraine’s biosafety, biosecurity, and dual-use policies and to provide important context for understanding the unwarranted Russian allegations. Moreover, the analysis of Ukraine’s biorisk management system highlights some of the international efforts underway to ensure that life sciences research across the world is conducted safely, securely, and responsibly. With the help of international partners, Ukraine has strengthened its biorisk management governance, as well as identified areas for improvement that it is working to address.”

“When the Infection Prevention Epidemiologist Gets COVID-19”

In this piece for Infection Prevention Today, Biodefense PhD Program alumna and current Schar School Assistant Professor, Dr. Saskia Popescu, discusses what it was like to catch COVID-19 in late 2022 as someone working in infection prevention. She offers insights into the pressures and guilt that many professionals have grappled with throughout this pandemic, writing “Safety isn’t binary, but rather a spectrum of risk and choice, and ultimately, it’s important to consider those individuals around us. I wish I would have been more vigilant in masking but am grateful I had the resources and capacity to mask and isolate appropriately when symptoms began. A friend recently joked that I had lost my street “cred” as an infection preventionist, which was both comical and a bit eye-opening. Mostly, it highlights much of the guilt or even shame many of us experience when we feel as if we’ve failed at the very thing we specialize in. I still beat myself up at times for getting COVID-19 and knowing better as an infectious disease specialist, but I also don’t want to associate any sense of shame with an infectious disease. We have all learned lessons during this pandemic, and a sustainable approach to COVID-19 will likely be one of the most important in the greater context of public health and infectious disease response.”

“Building the CDC the Country Needs”

The Center for Strategic & International Studies recently published this report by Drs. J. Stephen Morrison and Tom Inglesby discussing the current state of CDC and the findings of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security’s review of the agency. They explain, “This CSIS report enumerates the essential, concrete, near-term steps that will return CDC to a pathway of high performance: clarifying and better integrating CDC’s core domestic and global missions; enhancing CDC’s leadership and transparency by bolstering its communications and federal engagement capacities; creating a much stronger competency in Washington; and bolstering its operational and surge capabilities through updated frontline engagement, workforce development, data analysis, and budget flexibility. Across all reforms, greater attention to equity and accountability will be essential.”

“The Global Risks Report 2023”

In the 18th edition of the Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum discusses the findings of the latest Global Risks Perception Survey. The report addresses current crises, risks that are likely to be severe in the next decade, and mid-term future challenges centered around natural resource shortages. It finds that the cost of living will continue to dominate global risks in the next two years while failure to mitigate climate change will be the defining issue of the next decade, leading a formidable list that includes other issues like geoeconomic confrontation and widespread cybercrime and cyber insecurity.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

The BWC Global Forum: Biotech, Biosecurity & Beyond

This podcast series from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security aims to “…support BWC States Parties, policymakers and policy experts, and scientists understand advancements in biology and biotechnology and their impact on the Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC).” Currently, episodes include “De-Extinction Technologies”, “Human Genome Editing”, and “Wastewater Surveillance”. Learn more and listen here.

The Retort Episode 7-Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons

In this latest episode of the Retort, the University of Bath’s Dr. Brett Edwards discusses toxin and bioregulator weapons with Drs. Lijun Shang and Malcolm Dando. Check it out here.

George Mason Arlington Graduate Open House

Join us for the Graduate Open House on Thursday, January 19, from 5-7 p.m. on George Mason University’s Arlington Campus to learn more about the Biodefense Program and 40+ other programs from the Schar School of Policy and Government, the School of Business, and the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. At the in-person event, explore your graduate school options, connect with our representatives, and find out where a Mason graduate degree can take you next. Come early and work on your application with us! A computer lab is reserved starting at 4:30 p.m. for you to start your application and staff members will be on hand to answer your questions. Register today!

Opportunities, Threats and Proliferation Challenges Deriving from Bio-Technology and Bio-Engineering

“The International Affairs Institute (IAI) of Rome and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non Proliferation (VCDNP) cordially invite you to attend the next Young Women and Next Generation Initiative (YWNGI) public webinar event entitled: “Opportunities, Threats and Proliferation Challenges deriving from Bio-Technology and Bio-Engineering” which will be held on 16th January 2023 from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. Central European Time (CET) via Zoom.

The webinar will feature remarks by Dr Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non Proliferation (VCDNP); Dr Filippa Lentzos, Associate Professor in Science & International Security at King’s College London; and Dr James Revill, Head of the WMD and Space Security Programmes at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).” Learn more and register here.

Wastewater-Based Disease Surveillance for Public Health Action

“The National Academies’ Water Science and Technology Board and Health and Medicine Division invite you to a public release webinar of “Wastewater-Based Disease Surveillance for Public Health Action,” on Thursday, January 19, 2023 from 2-3 p.m. ET. The report explains how community-based wastewater disease surveillance has been useful during the COVID-19 pandemic in helping to inform important public health decisions. It also examines the value of wastewater surveillance applications for other infectious diseases, and presents a vision for the future of wastewater surveillance on a national scale.” Learn more and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

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

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

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “In 1980, a Frenchman entered a cave while visiting Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya. A week later he became seriously ill, eventually dying in a Nairobi hospital. Which cave did he enter and what disease killed him?”

Shout out to Stephen M. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Before perpetrating the infamous Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, this Japanese cult attempted to disseminate botulinum neurotoxin and Bacillus anthracis, among other agents. What was the name of this cult prior to its split/name change in 2007?” is Aum Shinryko.

Pandora Report: 1.6.2023

Happy New Year! This first edition of the year covers a number of updates from happenings over the course of our break, including the announcement of an exciting new book on genome editing from a Biodefense Program alumna. We also discuss the XBB.1.5 sub-variant, Dr. Fauci’s retirement from government, and more this week.

XBB.1.5 is the Most Transmissible COVID-19 Strain Yet According to WHO

XBB.1.5, yet another Omicron subvariant, rapidly went from accounting for just 4% of new US COVID-19 cases to more than 44% in a matter of weeks. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, said this week “We are concerned about its growth advantage, in particular in some countries in Europe and the Northeast part of the United States, where XBB.1.5 has rapidly replaced other circulating sub-variants.” Thus far, the strain has been detected in at least 29 countries, though the WHO cautions it could be circulating in many more. Importantly, as Politico notes, “Van Kerkhove said the increase in hospitalizations in the Northeast cannot be attributed yet to XBB.1.5 because other respiratory illnesses, including flu, could be partially responsible.”

The WHO does not have data on the severity of the sub-variant yet, though it is currently conducting a risk assessment and monitoring any possible changes in severity via lab studies and real world data. Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, recently Tweeted that immunity against this subvariant is “probably not great” if someone’s prior infection was before July 2022 or if they have not received a bivalent COVID-19 booster. However, he indicated Paxlovid and Molnupiravir as well as current COVID-19 tests should still work sufficiently against this sub-variant.

FY 2023 Omnibus Brings Changes in Global Health Funding, Gain of Function Research

Weeks before the current hullabaloo of the 118th Congress began, President Biden signed the late 2022 Omnibus appropriations bill on December 29, 2022, bringing about $1.7 trillion in funding for different programs that deal with health broadly. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the bill “…ncludes funding for U.S. global health programs at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Funding provided to the State Department and USAID through the Global Health Programs (GHP) account, which represents the bulk of global health assistance, totals $10.6 billion, an increase of $731 million above the FY 2022 enacted level and $15 million below the FY 2023 request. The bill provides higher levels of funding for almost all program areas compared to the FY 2022 enacted level, with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund) and global health security receiving the largest increases; funding for bilateral HIV and family planning and reproductive health (FPRH) remained flat. Funding for global health provided to the CDC totals $693 million, an increase of $46 million compared to the FY22 enacted level, but $55 million below the FY23 request. Funding for the Fogarty International Center (FIC) at the NIH totaled $95 million, $8 million above the FY22 enacted level and essentially flat compared to the FY23 request.”

The new legislation also takes aim at gain-of-function (GoF) research, after GOP lawmakers pushed the administration to halt federally-funded GoF research, citing beliefs that such research is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. On page 3,354 of the more than 4,100 page bill, it reads, “(1) IN GENERAL.—Beginning not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall not fund research conducted by a foreign entity at a facility located in a country of concern, in the estimation of the Director of National Intelligence or the head of another relevant Federal department or agency, as appropriate, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, involving pathogens of pandemic potential or biological agents or toxins listed pursuant to section 351A(a)(1) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 262a(a)(1)).”

The Act also includes provision for tempering undue foreign influence in biomedical research, such as foreign talent recruitment programs, and addressing national security risks related to biomedical research generally. Importantly, too, it provides greater funding for countermeasure development, including $1.5 billion for the recently formed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, and $3.3 billion for MCM research and improving elements like the Strategic National Stockpile.

For a concise run-down, check out the KFF’s budget tracker to see details on historical annual appropriations for global health programming.

On the Topic of Risky Research…

With all the political mudslinging regarding GoF and biomedical research in general, it is important to have access to quality information about the facilities around the world conducting this kind of research. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently highlighted the work of Drs. Greg Koblentz and Filippa Lentzos on this front–Global Biolabs. The Bulletin explains, “George Mason University biosecurity expert Gregory Koblentz, who co-leads the project with Filippa Lentzos, a King’s College London researcher, said shining a light on the proliferation of the labs can help cut through misinformation about them and allow for a clear-eyed look at how these beneficial, yet also potentially risky facilities are managed. “One of the goals of our project is to increase transparency and educate the public and policy-makers about these labs’ activities and what governance measures are necessary to ensure they are operating safely, securely, and responsibly,” Koblentz said. “Accurate information is a prerequisite for an informed debate on the benefits and risks posed by these labs.”

Throughout the rest of the piece, Dr. Koblentz addresses common questions and assumptions about high risk work and the kinds of facilities it takes place in, covering everything from national-level biosafety and dual-use research policies to the time and effort it takes to actually build these facilities, and the challenges in gauging on-the-ground implementation of good policy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci Retires From Federal Service

After a marathon 38-years as the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci retired from government on December 31, 2022. During his tenure, he advised seven presidents on HIV/AIDS and other domestic and global health issues, even serving as one of the main architects of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program estimated to have saved more than 20 million lives. Having served the American public for more than 50-years, Dr. Fauci has earned distinctions such as a Federal Citation for Exemplary Leadership from the National Academy of Medicine in 2020, the National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2005, and, in 2008, the Presidential Medal of Freedom-the highest civilian award in the United States, bestowed by the President of the United States to recognize those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors.” In a famous 1988 clip from that year’s presidential debate, then Vice President George H.W. Bush identified a then relatively unknown Dr. Fauci as his idea of an American hero, commending his work to fight HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Fauci’s career ended in a rocky last couple years as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world and, amid the United States’ lackluster response, public health and its leadership became increasingly politicized. The GOP has increasingly targeted Dr. Fauci, even going so far as to promise to investigate his role in the COVID-19 response upon taking control of the House of Representatives. Dr. Fauci has indicated he is fully willing to testify and cooperate with such an investigation, saying he has nothing to hide.

Despite the incessant calls to “fire” or “imprison Fauci,” the esteemed former NIAID director has indicated he does not plan to completely stop his work now that he is no longer a government employee. He told the New York Times that he “…hopes to do some public speaking, become affiliated with a university and treat patients if it has a medical center. He intends to write a memoir, he said, and he wants to encourage people to pursue careers in science, medicine and public service.”

When asked, “Are there other threats that you think about beyond infectious disease threats?,” Dr. Fauci responded: “What really, really concerns me is the politicization of public health principles. How you can have red states undervaccinated and blue states well vaccinated and having deaths much more prevalent among people in red states because they’re undervaccinated — that’s tragic for the population,” showcasing his unfailing concern and dedication to the mission to the very end.

IAVI’s Ebola Sudan Vaccine Arrives in Uganda

IAVI, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, announced in late December that the first shipment of its Sudan virus (SUDV) vaccine arrived in Entebbe, Uganda, on December 17. IAVI’s press release explains the goal of shipping its candidate, writing “The IAVI vaccine candidate is one of three intended to be evaluated in a “ring vaccination” clinical trial being planned to assess vaccine effectiveness in preventing Ebola Sudan disease, should the outbreak in Uganda continue or recur. In November, a WHO-convened expert independent group ranked IAVI’s investigational SUDV vaccine candidate as the number one priority investigational vaccine for inclusion in the trial. As public health measures implemented in Uganda have fortunately been successful in limiting new cases of Ebola Sudan virus disease, it may not be possible to conduct a formal ring vaccination study. Even if the ring vaccination trial cannot be conducted as currently designed, IAVI will continue to move our program forward as expeditiously as possible. Alternative clinical studies are being considered that would contribute to the evidence base needed to bring promising vaccine candidates to regulatory approval and support their use to control future outbreaks. These studies will be co-sponsored by the Ministry of Health in Uganda and WHO, with support from other partners.”

“Genome Editing and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Risk of Misuse”

In her new book, GMU Biodefense PhD alumna Dr. Katherine Paris introduces state-of-the-art genome editing technologies, and she assesses the risk that nefarious actors could intentionally misuse these technologies to develop more dangerous biological weapons. Dr. Paris uncovers how concerns over the possible misuse of genetic engineering began in the mid-1970s, and she traces how these warnings unfolded over time. These cautions came to a head in the 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the United States Intelligence Community, which warned about the deliberate or unintentional misuse of genome editing to create harmful biological agents or products. In the foreword of Genome Editing and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Risk of Misuse, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Graduate Program Director, emphasizes the need for a “thorough, informed, and accessible analysis” of genome editing technologies, which Dr. Paris delivers in her book.

Dr. Paris systematically assesses both the risk of misuse and the potential governability of genome editing technologies. Policymakers have the ultimate challenge of protecting and safeguarding the continued development and use of genome editing for legitimate purposes, while putting in place biodefense and biosecurity strategies to prevent misuse. Dr. Paris provides a tailored set of recommendations that are sensitive to the cost-benefit trade-off of regulating genome editing technologies. The book is a must-read for policymakers as well as researchers, defense and security personnel, and intelligence analysts.

Dr. Paris is a Senior Program Analyst with over a decade’s worth of government contracting experience, and she is a certified Project Management Professional. Prior to her studies in Biodefense at GMU, she earned her MS in Biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University and BS in Biology from the University of Virginia. Dr. Paris continues her involvement at GMU as a mentor for students in the Schar School Alumni Mentoring Program.

“The Treaties That Make the World Safer Are Struggling”

Jen Kirby, a Senior Foreign and National Security Reporter at Vox, recently authored this piece discussing current issues in international disarmament and nonproliferation, focusing in large part on the Biological Weapons Convention. Kirby summarizes last year’s BWC RevCon, writing “But after three weeks of discussions that ended about a week before Christmas, the BWC RevCon ended up a modest success. The parties basically agreed to agree to keep talking, establishing a working group, which would meet for a little more than two weeks each year and deal with a long, long list of issues related to the BWC, including evaluating developments in science and technology and potential verification and compliance measures. And the unit that implements the convention would get another staff member. A team of three people tasked with helping to keep the world free of bioweapons became four.”

She then writes, “Modest,” then, is doing a lot of work. But in this geopolitical climate, you take what you can get.”

The piece continues, covering US political wrangling at past RevCons and comparable issues with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. She explains that this is part of a broader issue, writing “The Ukraine war and its fallout may be among the biggest current threats to global stability. But Russia is not alone. China is expanding its nuclear arsenal and has rebuffed attempts to engage bilaterally on arms control with the US even as the competition between Washington and Beijing escalates. North Korea is likely closing in on more nuclear tests. Tensions simmer between nuclear powers India and Pakistan. The United States tore up the Iran deal during the Trump administration, one of a few arms control treaties Washington exited in recent years, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed for unarmed reconassaince flights. The latter two exits chipped away at the arms control regime with Russia, even as the US had very valid claims of Russian noncompliance.”

“The 20-Year Boondoggle”

In this piece for The Verge, Amanda Chicago Lewis writes, “The Department of Homeland Security was supposed to rally nearly two dozen agencies together in a modernized, streamlined approach to protecting the country. So what the hell happened?” In it, she discusses the early and enduring challenges of forming DHS and ensuring it meets is goals, focusing in part on the BioWatch program in addition to ongoing issues with Congressional approval and agency morale in the catch-all department.

She writes, “The dysfunction might have been funny, in a Dilbert-meets-Veep way, if the stakes weren’t so high. Albright was overseeing a project called BioWatch, a system intended to detect traces of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. Bush described BioWatch in his 2003 State of the Union as “the nation’s first early warning network of sensors,” which would initiate processes to mobilize hospitals, alert the public, and deploy supplies from the national stockpile.”

She continues, “There was only one problem: BioWatch never functioned as intended. The devices were unreliable, causing numerous false positives. “It was really only capable of detecting large-scale attacks,” Albright explained, because of “how big a plume would have to be” for the sensors to pick it up. And the system was prohibitively slow: every 24 hours, someone had to retrieve a filter and then send it to a laboratory for testing, which might then take another 24 hours to discover a pathogen.”

“The time required after BioWatch might pick up evidence of a toxin and the time required to get it to somebody who might be able to reach a conclusion there might be a terrorist attack — my God, by that time, a lot of people would have gotten sick or died,” former Senator Joe Lieberman told me.”

“Hacked Russian Files Reveal Propaganda Agreement with China”

In this piece for The Intercept, Mara Hvistendahl and Alexey Kovalev cover Russia’s attempts to coordinate with China to spread disinformation about the United States’ Cooperative Threat Reduction program and its facilities in Ukraine. In their piece, they explain that, “A bilateral agreement signed July 2021 makes clear that cooperating on news coverage and narratives is a big goal for both governments. At a virtual summit that month, leading Russian and Chinese government and media figures discussed dozens of news products and cooperative ventures, including exchanging news content, trading digital media strategies, and co-producing television shows. The effort was led by Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media, and by China’s National Radio and Television Administration.”

“In the propaganda agreement, the two sides pledged to “further cooperate in the field of information exchange, promoting objective, comprehensive and accurate coverage of the most important world events.” They also laid out plans to cooperate on online and social media, a space that both countries have used to seed disinformation, pledging to strengthen “mutually beneficial cooperation in such issues as integration, the application of new technologies, and industry regulation.” 

Read this piece here.

Managing Hazardous and Biohazardous Materials/Waste in the Laboratory Setting

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association recently announced this technical seminar offering from Triumvirate Environmental, which will take place at 6 pm on January 10, 2023 both virtually and in-person in Gaithersburg, MD. “Laboratories can generate biohazardous and hazardous waste. Confusion is not uncommon on what the differences are when it comes to disposal and handling.  This webinar will review the differences and discuss proper handling and disposal of each type of waste.  Potential recycling options will also be discussed.” Learn more and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

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

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

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “Before perpetrating the infamous Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, this Japanese cult attempted to disseminate botulinum neurotoxin and Bacillus anthracis, among other agents. What was the name of this cult prior to its split/name change in 2007?”

Shout out to Scott H. (a loyal reader and proud parent of a talented Biodefense MS student!) for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 2016, there was an outbreak of what disease in reindeers in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia?” is anthrax.

Pandora Report: 12.23.2022

Happy Holidays from the Pandora Report! This week we are covering updates on China’s rollback of Zero-COVID policies, outcomes of the Ninth BWC RevCon, the new White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy, and more. There will be no issue next week for the holidays, so we will see you next year!

The Paper Tiger of Pandemic Response? China’s Rollback of Zero-COVID

Shockingly low case counts, the conclusion of the Party’s Central Economic Work Conference, thick smoke emanates from Beijing crematoriums, and reports of a closed-door meeting of the National Health Commission hinting at much higher infection and death counts than those officially reported…The situation in China is complex and dire right now. Rather than packing this weekly issue full of extended analysis on China’s Zero-COVID exit, there is a separate post available here covering everything from confusion over case counts, China’s real estate sector woes creating even more danger for the economy, urban-rural healthcare disparities, and more.

Harbin’s Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by the Japanese Army Unit 731 Adds New Display

China’s Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by the Japanese Army Unit 731, located in the city of Harbin in the northeast, has recently added a new exhibit with more than 20,000 artifacts. The museum, housed in what was the base for the infamous Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731, features artifacts and exhibits dedicated to Japan’s use of biological weapons and other atrocities committed by the unit during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Known officially as the Kwantung Army’s Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department, Unit 731 was commanded by LTG Shiro Ishii and conducted BW testing, controlled dehydration, vivisections, and more primarily on Chinese and Korean prisoners.

Jin Chengmin, the museum’s curator, told state media that the new exhibit includes “2,862 incriminating artifacts, 23,000 pages of historical files, and 810 minutes of video footage, which were obtained through archaeological excavations, transnational forensics, and academic research since 2015.” This includes a roster of those affiliated with the unit, showing that it had nearly 3,500 members. It is thought that 12,000 prisoners, most of them Chinese, were killed at Unit 731’s base in Harbin, with many more killed in field offices throughout Manchuria. The United States, through GEN Douglas MacArthur, traded those involved at Unit 731 immunity for information about their experiments, according to former US officers and declassified documents. Images of the new exhibit are available in Xinhua‘s article about the new displays.

Pandemic Preparedness and Response Gets Permanent Spot at the White House

Ebola czars, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and other ad hoc positions created at the White House in response to everything from HIV/AIDS to Zika could soon be a thing of the past as bipartisan members of Congress look to establish the White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy. According to STAT next year’s funding package includes provisions establishing this office by hiring a director and up to 25 staff. Furthermore, “The new director’s main responsibilities would be to advise the president on preparing for pandemics and other biological threats, to coordinate response activities across the federal government — including research into new countermeasures and distribution of medical supplies — and to evaluate the government’s readiness. The director would also be a member of the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council.” The director would also have to lead an interagency working group that would evaluate biosecurity and preparedness, touching on an area many believe is under prioritized.

It is not clear how much this office would overlap with the existing NSC Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense or whether it would have its own budget. Furthermore, as STAT highlights, “One of the most important factors for the new office’s success would be whether officials leading the defense and health departments truly believe that the new director actually has the backing and authority of the president to direct spending plans and coordinate resources, Bernard said.” The Senate passed the version of the $1.7 trillion spending bill containing these measures last night. It is expected to pass the House before being signed by President Biden.

Outcomes of the Ninth Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference

As we discussed last week, the Ninth BWC RevCon wrapped up recently, bringing a few important changes for the the next few years aimed at improving implementation of the BWC. The US Department of State released this press statement on RevCon this week:

“The Ninth Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference concluded on December 16 with the adoption by consensus of a final document, which launches a new, expert-led process to strengthen the BWC to address the challenges of the future. We congratulate Special Representative Ken Ward and his team for their hard work during the three weeks of the Review Conference and the numerous preparatory meetings over the past year. We also commend Ambassador Leonardo Bencini, President of the Review Conference, for his dedication in bringing the States Parties to consensus on a final document.”

“The Review Conference established a new Working Group that will make recommendations on measures to strengthen the BWC. These will address advances in science and technology, confidence-building and transparency, compliance and verification, as well as national implementation measures, international cooperation, and preparedness and response.”

“While the final consensus document did not include all the improvements proposed by the United States, we are confident this document is a step forward in improving implementation of the Convention. We will continue to work with other countries who share the goal of a world free of biological weapons, while ensuring that legitimate biological and public health research continues under effective safety and security guidelines and assisting other countries to meet that goal.”

The Youth For Biosecurity initiative also recently released its “Youth Recommendations for the Ninth Review Conference of the BWC,” which was presented by youth delegates to senior leaders at RevCon a couple weeks ago. The Youth for Biosecurity Initiative is “…a project funded under European Union Council Decision 2019/97 which aims at informing young scientists – in particular from the Global South – about their critical role in biosafety and biosecurity and bolstering global capacities against the misuse of biological agents.” The group’s recommendations cover issues in cooperation and assistance; developments in S&T; strengthening national implementation; assistance, response, and preparedness; and institutional strengthening of the convention.

“Experts Debate the Risks of Made-to-Order DNA”

Michael Schulson recently published this piece in Undark discussing concerns about synthetic DNA advancements and services. Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Greg Koblentz is quoted throughout the piece discussing the challenges the government faces in trying to regulate something like this. Schulson writes, “It’s not that I’m worried about something happening tomorrow. But the reality is, this capability is increasingly powerful in terms of how long the DNA fragments can be, what you can create with them, the ability of recipients to then assemble the DNA fragments into a new virus,” said Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense researcher at George Mason University. “This is the kind of thing that we really should be more proactive on — and try to get ahead of the curve.”

Of companies’ efforts to screen customers, he writes “This is the first legal requirement in the U.S. for a user of synthetic DNA to pay attention to the security safeguards that are in place for what they’re ordering,” said Koblentz, the George Mason University expert, who consulted on the bill…Ultimately, Koblentz said, the federal government should do more to incentivize good screening. For example, major federal science funders could give grants on the condition that institutions buy their DNA from more secure providers, using their market power, he said, “to require researchers to use biosecurity safeguards.”

Schulson also mentions a piece Koblentz wrote in 2020 for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists-“A biotech firm made a smallpox-like virus on purpose. Nobody seems to care”.

“Future Planning for the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Enterprise: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic”

This new Proceedings of a Workshop from the National Academies discusses the findings of a virtual meeting of leaders from government, NGOs, and the private sector that aimed to explore the nation’s public health emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise. Discussion focused on topics like global disease surveillance, health care delivery and core public health functions, supply chain vulnerability, medical countermeasure development, and more. Download this publication for free on the National Academies’ site to learn more about the workshop and its outcomes.

“The Unintended Consequences of Information Provision: The World Health Organization and Border Restrictions during COVID-19”

Worsnop et al. discuss failures of international agreements in the context of border restrictions during the pandemic in their new article in International Studies Perspectives: “Why do some international agreements fail to achieve their goals? Rather than states’ engaging in cheap talk, evasion, or shallow commitments, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Regulations (IHR)—the agreement governing states’ and WHO’s response to global health emergencies—point to the unintended consequences of information provision. The IHR have a dual goal of providing public health protection from health threats while minimizing unnecessary interference in international traffic. As such, during major outbreaks WHO provides information about spread and severity, as well as guidance about how states should respond, primarily regarding border policies. During COVID-19, border restrictions such as entry restrictions, flight suspensions, and border closures have been commonplace even though WHO recommended against such policies when it declared the outbreak a public health emergency in January 2020. Building on findings from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, we argue that without raising the cost of disregarding (or the benefits of following) recommendations against border restrictions, information from WHO about outbreak spread and severity leads states to impose border restrictions inconsistent with WHO’s guidance. Using new data from COVID-19, we show that WHO’s public health emergency declaration and pandemic announcement are associated with increases in the number of states imposing border restrictions.”

“Ukraine: The Human Price of War”

Throughout this year, we have covered Russia’s targeting of civilians and healthcare facilities, an under-discussed topic. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security recently presented “Ukraine: The Human Price of War,” a “short documentary series examining the shocking attack on the country and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and his armed forces will continue their past behavior in Syria and Chechnya – targeting civilian populations and infrastructure – including the medical sector.” The series consists of six videos covering numerous facets of this topic and featuring input from experts and professionals across the world involved in documenting and addressing these acts.

Managing Hazardous and Biohazardous Materials/Waste in the Laboratory Setting

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association recently announced this technical seminar offering from Triumvirate Environmental, which will take place at 6 pm on January 10, 2023 both virtually and in-person in Gaithersburg, MD. “Laboratories can generate biohazardous and hazardous waste. Confusion is not uncommon on what the differences are when it comes to disposal and handling.  This webinar will review the differences and discuss proper handling and disposal of each type of waste.  Potential recycling options will also be discussed.” Learn more and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

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

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

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, we’re turning our attention to sustaining Santa Clause’s operations. In 2016, there was an outbreak of what disease in reindeers in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia?

Shout out to Georgios P. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Who is the longest serving director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)?” is Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Pandora Report: 12.18.2022

We hope you don’t have the Sunday scaries, but this issue will either help them or make them way worse–there is no in between. We start off this week with discussion of the unfolding situation in China as the realities of the sudden absence of the country’s Zero-COVID policies continue to unfold. We also cover a number of updates from the US government, including the formation of a new bureau in the Department of State and the release of several reports from the House of Representatives. As always, we have a number of new publications and upcoming events. This week also includes an announcement from the GHSA Consortium, so be sure to read to the end.

First, a Sunday comic just like back in the day (well, kind of)

Ten-Points to a Million Deaths? China Exits Zero-COVID

What Started All This?

It has been a confusing few weeks in regards to the PRC’s management of COVID-19, with policy reversals coming rapidly in the aftermath of mass protests over the country’s strict Zero-COVID policies of the last couple years. For a brief re-cap, the State Council released a ten-point plan on December 7 that accelerated the country’s shift away from Zero-COVID. The plan marked a number of critical national shifts, including the prohibition of “arbitrary expansion of high-risk areas”, calling for delineating high risk areas in a scientific manner and ceasing to designate these areas based on residential compounds, communities, and towns in favor of targeting buildings, units, floors, and households. It also ended mass testing according to administrative regions while also reducing the scope and frequency of testing, requiring that quarantine measures imposed on high-risk areas be lifted in the absence of new infections after five days, and prohibiting willful closures of pharmacies. Importantly, these points also allow for home quarantine for those with asymptomatic or mild infections.

On December 8, the State Council also released guidelines for home treatment of COVID-19 for asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 cases. These guidelines also indicate that patients with stable underlying medical conditions who are infected with COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization may recover at home. These guidelines also call on local governments to establish channels for rapid transfer of patients between upper-level hospitals and communities, while allowing homebound patients to monitor their own symptoms. Finally, these guidelines indicate “…that the quarantine period ends for homebound patients if all the following requirements are met — their symptoms improve significantly or if they have no obvious symptoms, they test negative in antigen self-test applications and take two consecutive nucleic acid tests with the cycle threshold values not smaller than 35.”

However, provinces are introducing rollbacks at different paces, so Zero-COVID is not being exited uniformly across China. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has an interactive map available detailing which provinces have implemented which rollbacks as of December 14 that is very helpful in visualizing where policies are the most liberal. Currently, Beijing is the most relaxed, having implemented eleven rollbacks as of December 14, including: release home care instructions for patients; resume provincial group tours; open more fever clinics; distribute test kits; end temporary lockdowns; reduce checking of test results; reduce checking of health codes; ease restrictions on cold and flu medicine purchases; allow increased at-home quarantine; ease processes for domestic travel; and encourage vaccination for seniors.

The WHO Health Emergencies Programme Director Dr. Michael Ryan said on Wednesday that COVID-19 cases in the country were already exploding before the State Council effectively abandoned the Zero-COVID policies. Ryan said, “There’s a narrative at the moment that China lifted the restrictions and all of a sudden the disease is out of control…The disease was spreading intensively because I believe the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease. And I believe China decided strategically that was not the best option anymore.”

The View on the Ground

Whether or not it is true that the initial uptick in cases was or was not caused by the loosening of these policies no longer seems to be relevant. Anecdotally, many in Beijing have said they knew of hardly anyone who had been infected with COVID-19 domestically in the last three years. However, now, many are claiming that most people in the city either have COVID-19 themselves or know someone who does. On December 11 alone, over 22,000 outpatient fever clinic visits were recorded in Beijing, more than sixteen times that of a week prior, in addition to over 31,000 calls to 120 (similar to 911 or 999), which is six times the average. This comes amid reports of soaring infection rates among healthcare workers, driving up hospital and clinic wait times for those who do choose to try and seek treatment outside the home. Treatment facilities, pharmacies, and nursing homes are asking staff to continue working despite testing positive in order to sustain operations.

As case counts grow, concerns about the country’s capacity to handle widespread infection worsen as the Omicron variant rips through China’s population of 1.4 billion people. This is especially dangerous as serious cases requiring advanced care will continue to develop. As Chen Chen explains in Think Global Health, “A Fudan University study from late 2020 utilized data from the “2015 Third Nationwide ICU Census”—China’s most recent ICU census—to forecast the 2021 ICU capacity for different regions around the country. It showed disparities in ICU bed availabilities, with many less developed provinces like Jilin, Guangxi, and Tibet seeing less than half the rate of ICU beds than more developed regions like Zhejiang, Beijing, and Shanghai. Overall, the study concluded that “the number of comprehensive ICU beds per 100,000 residents in China is 4.37.”

She continues, “Data on hospital bed availability in 2021 from the National Bureau of Statistics showed that nearly every province, except Guangdong and Chongqing, had significantly fewer beds per 10,000 people in rural regions. For the twenty-eight provinces in China, urban areas had an average of 25 percent more beds per 10,000 residents than rural areas. Nearly 40 percent of Chinese people reside in rural areas. In comparison, the U.S. rural residents makes up less than 20 percent of the total population.”

Furthermore, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is failing in its promise to maintain adequate supply of key drugs and supplies to treat COVID-19. Demand for fever reducers, cold and flu medicines, and COVID-19 test kits surged on the mainland with the announcement of the rollbacks, as lines formed outside pharmacies and online platforms quickly sold out. In Hong Kong and Macau, as well as internationally, people were trying to buy these supplies to mail them to their friends and family in mainland China. Health authorities in Macau have imposed strict purchasing limits on antivirals as Xiangxue Pharmaceutical, a producer of COVID-19 antivirals, promised it was “going all out” to increase its output in response to shortages. Pfizer’s Paxlovid sold out almost immediately on 111, Inc., an online pharmacy, which priced the antiviral at almost 430 USD.

In light of this, the Party has again turned to promotion of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as an alternative prevention and treatment amid antiviral and painkiller shortages. The Party is not advertising these remedies strictly as potential methods of relieving symptoms, but as ways of preventing and treating COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, the Party has been relying on TCM as a fallback throughout this pandemic, typically while failing to acknowledge the role of modern medicine in treating COVID-19. For example, in 2020, the State Council claimed that 90% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hubei province “received TCM treatment that proved effective.” This also happened during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, during which the Party touted the fact that 40-60% of patients were treated with TCM remedies, largely failing to include the fact that those patients by and large received TCM treatments alongside modern medical treatments.

Specifically, the Party is pushing Lianhua Qingwen (LQ) and Shuanghuanglian, the former of which was developed in 2003 by Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical amid the SARS outbreak. It was listed by the National Health Commission in 2004 as a treatment not just for SARS, but also for influenza and other respiratory diseases. LQ is available in both capsule and granular forms and is made with several TCM ingredients, including apricot kernel and its active ingredient-Lonicera japonica, or Japanese honeysuckle. LQ was approved for use against COVID-19 by the PRC in January 2020 and was distributed throughout Shanghai during a particularly bad outbreak in March 2022. Questionable studies claim that LQ can “block viral replication and change the virion morphology”, despite not identifying a mechanism of action. Shuanghuanglian on the other hand has been used for the treatment of acute respiratory tract infections since the 1970s. It also includes Japanese honeysuckle in its formulation, alongside Baikal skullcap and weeping forsythia. Su et al. claimed in a July 2020 study in Acta Pharmacologica Sinica that the medication is cytotoxic “against a clinical isolate of SARS-CoV-2”. The Chinese government has claimed throughout this pandemic that Shuanghuanglian is effective in preventing COVID-19 infection, driving up sales of the TCM remedy.

This has not been confined to the sale of packaged TCM remedies either. For example, Jin Riguang, a scholar of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has recommended chewing Sichuan peppercorns and drinking ginger-licorice tea as an effective means of treating COVID-19 infection. Products like canned peaches and lemons have also sold out nationally after being promoted as natural remedies for the disease. All of this points to a serious breakdown of planning and a potentially devastating winter ahead.

Potential Outcomes: Party Policy Challenges, a Wave of Deaths, and More Global Supply Chain Disruptions

There are also two critical issues at play here for the CCP: 1) The messaging about COVID-19 now, in the absence of Zero-COVID policies, is fundamentally different than it has been for the last three years in justifying continuous lockdowns and strict testing regimens, and 2) Questions will abound regarding what the Party has actually done in the years of Zero-COVID to prepare to resume normal living. The Party spent the last couple of years treating small outbreaks of COVID-19 as serious threats, implementing harsh lockdowns of entire cities and requiring testing as often as every 48 hours to enter different venues. The shift to what the policy is now, then, has required portraying the Omicron variant as weak and unlikely to cause more than mild illness. While that might be broadly true in a sense, this fails to account for the lack of quality vaccinations across China as well as long-term risks like Long COVID.

Furthermore, the Party pitched Zero-COVID as the Chinese way of handling this virus, almost certainly aiming to stamp it out quickly so that the quick suffocation of COVID-19 could be touted internationally as a uniquely Chinese success story. In the years since the pandemic began, China focused more on lockdowns and strict testing requirements, neglecting other mitigation strategies, most notably vaccines. As we discussed last week, while the government initially claimed it was close to producing its own mRNA offerings and that it would approve the BioNTech offering, today there are no mRNA COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the PRC. China’s vaccination campaign has instead depended on two domestically-produced inactivated offerings-Sinopharm BIBP and CoronaVac. This brand of nationalism is especially troubling as people in Beijing scramble to acquire western antivirals and fever reducers from loved ones abroad. Furthermore, as all of this unfolds, President Xi Jinping, who styles himself as a hyper-capable leader and who has predicated much of his work in the last few years on his Zero-COVID policy, is silent.

Furthermore, while the PRC has not reported any COVID-19 deaths since December 4, reports of untallied COVID-19 deaths continue to grow. For example, staff at the Dongjiao Funeral Home in Beijing claim to be receiving the bodies of COVID-19 victims, numbering as high as 30-40 per day, with those who died of COVID-19 being prioritized for cremation. Body bags have also been observed being taken from COVID-19-specific hospitals in the country, casting further doubt. Throughout this pandemic, China’s COVID-19 case and death counts have been called into question repeatedly. Now, with the population left largely unprotected, it seems even more unlikely that there are not more cases and deaths than the government is letting on. Furthermore, the government announced last week that it would stop reporting asymptomatic infections, which have historically been the bulk of positive test results in the country. This represents yet another potentially critical reduction in data sharing and risk communication. Finally, even if this current wave is fueled by transmission that predates the policy rollbacks, how could deaths be so low, all things considered? This question is fueling concerns that Beijing is concealing important data on this outbreak.

Of course, this is not very far into what is setting up to be a horrific winter in China. Estimates vary heavily with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicting that China will suffer one million COVID-19 deaths through 2023. The projections include a peak around April 1, with deaths reaching about 322,000 by then when roughly 1/3 of the PRC’s population has been infected. The Economist released a more conservative estimate predicting 680,000 COVID-19 deaths in the absence of Zero-COVID policies in China. However, this model depends on everyone who needs an ICU bed getting one, which is just not possible in the scenario likely to unfold. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong released a preprint recently that estimates lifting Zero-COVID restrictions and reopening all provinces in December and January without further mitigation would result in 684 deaths per million people, or about 964,400 deaths. The point is, from all angles, this is a looming catastrophe.

While reports indicate many are electing to stay home on their own, this may cease to be the case as the country approaches Chunyun, or the Spring Festival travel period. This period begins about two weeks before Lunar New Year (January 22 this year), lasting for about 40 days. It is traditionally the busiest travel time in the country. In 2020, Chunyun travel and Wuhan’s status as a major regional transit hub were large drivers of the initial decision to lock the city down. In anticipation of this year’s rush, some universities in China are allowing students to complete the winter term virtually from home, offering some attempt to curtail the potential explosion of cases mass travel could lead to.

In terms of the economic consequences of this rollback, China, the world’s second largest economy, is staring down what will probably be the world’s biggest COVID-19 surge ever. The last few years saw China’s frequent lockdowns cause an economic slowdown that had global impacts. China’s 2Q GDP growth slowed to .4% this year, in large part because of the constant lockdowns. This certainly hampered national objectives and created global problems in a world economy already bogged down by inflation, energy crises, and food supply disruptions–and that was when case counts were much lower than they are right now. In major financial centers like Hong Kong, the harsh COVID-19 policies has fueled an exodus of the business community as expats seek to escape the restrictions (though, of course, the National Security Law and changes in Hong Kong’s governance structure also fueled this in recent years). The switch to rolling back Zero-COVID, then, seems like a good step in reopening and growing China’s economy but, again, that is unlikely to work in the absence of widespread, effective vaccination efforts and other long-term mitigation strategies.

Joshua Cohen explains some of this in Forbes, writing “China’s scrapping of its Zero Covid policy is viewed by some as a pragmatic step aimed at reviving economic growth. But, in the short term it may backfire by exacerbating already existing supply chain and labor shortage issues. China is the world’s largest producer and exporter of consumer goods. Disruptions across the Chinese manufacturing sector are likely to impact the global supply chain of goods and the world’s economy as a whole. Multinational companies in China are already feeling the effects of the outbreak, and are straining to keep operations running normally.”

In short, this is a spectacular mismanagement of a pandemic. While no country, particularly the United States, was perfect in responding to COVID-19, China has seemingly both delayed the inevitable while setting itself up for even worse failures. This has consequences not just for the PRC and its people, but the entire world given Beijing’s push in recent decades to grow its economy and international influence. The Party has consistently opted to take whatever was perceived to be the most politically convenient, profitable route, clinging to public health nationalism and ultimately setting many up for unspeakable suffering. This kind of behavior on the part of the CCP has to be taken into consideration when planning for future pandemics and global crises.

The Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference Wraps Up

The BWC’s Ninth Review Conference wrapped up this week, culminating in the adoption of the Draft Final Document of the Ninth Review Conference. Major outcomes of this include growth of the BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU), establishment of goals to strengthen international cooperation and assistance under Article X and to review scientific and technological advancements relevant to the BWC, and improvements the 2023-2026 intersessional process. One new full-time staff position will be added in the ISU for the period from 2023 to 2027. As of the ISU’s latest annual report, the unit had just three full-time staff members. Importantly, the ISU is funded by BWC States Parties’ contributions, rather than the UN’s regular budget, so States Parties are encouraged to contribute financially where possible.

The 2023-2026 intersessional program will include the creation of a working group on the strengthening of the BWC, which will aim to “identify, examine and develop specific and effective measures, including possible legally-binding measures, and to make recommendations to strengthen and institutionalise the Convention in all its aspects, to be submitted to States Parties for consideration and any further action” Specifically, the working group will address measures on international cooperation and assistance under Article X; on scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention; on confidence-building and transparency; on compliance and verification; on national implementation of the Convention; on assistance, response, and preparedness under Article VII; and on organizational, institutional, and financial arrangements.

Regarding strengthening international cooperation under Article X (which deals with States Parties abilities, to facilitate “exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes”), the document reads “The Conference decides to develop with a view to establishing a mechanism open to all States Parties to facilitate and support the full implementation of international cooperation and assistance under Article X. In order for this mechanism to be established, the Working Group on the strengthening of the Convention will make appropriate recommendations.”

All of this has not gone without criticism, of course, with many a critique focused on the BWC’s still comparatively toothless nature in light of its lack of a verification regime. Izabella Kaminska discussed this in her piece for The Post, “Why is the Biological Weapons Convention not getting attention?,” explaining “Unlike its chemical and nuclear cousins, the treaty has never been accompanied by a verification regime. This has been a source of concern for some parties because it has made it difficult to determine whether a state is engaging in prohibited activities.” She also notes that, in addition to Russia’s Formal Consultative Meeting under the BWC earlier this year, “Today, the states calling most loudly for a verification mechanism (Russia and Iran) are also the ones undermining verification missions in the BWC’s chemical counterpart.”

Kaminska also includes discussion of issues in this surrounding S&T advancements, explaining that Biodefense Program Director Dr. Greg Koblentz told her “…progress in recent years has been further hindered by documented cases of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea attempting to hack into companies and university labs working on Covid treatments to spread disinformation about these US-developed medical countermeasures.” She quoted Koblentz saying “That is why we need more in-depth discussion about what is possible given scientific and technical developments and political constraints, which is why the US willingness to have expert-level discussion on issues such as transparency and compliance reassurance would be so useful.”

Criticisms also focus on the BWC ISU’s tiny full-time employee roster in comparison to the International Atomic Energy Association’s 2,560 employees and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ approximate 500 employees. Dr. Richard Cupitt wrote about this issue for the Stimson Center in 2020, arguing “Unfortunately, all of this work, including efforts to address assistance requests through an on-line database, must be serviced by a talented but pathetically small support staff, i.e., the BWC – Implementation Support Unit (BWC-ISU), which consists of three full-time staff members located at the United Nations offices in Geneva.  Moreover, even before the pandemic shortfalls in the budget for the BWC and the BWC-ISU have been significant enough to raise questions about even having a meaningful MSP [Meeting of States Parties].”

While this RevCon has been praised as a meaningful step in the right direction for verification and diplomacy, there is still an incredible amount of work to be done to make the BWC an effective piece of international law.

State Department Announces Plans for Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced this week his intention to establish a new Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy to help strengthen the Department of State’s ability to ” strengthen global health security and to address the growing national security challenges presented by global health crises,” and his intention to ask current US Global AIDS Coordinator, Dr. John Nkengasong, so lead the new bureau. Secretary Blinken continued his announcement by clarifying what the new bureau would do, saying “Specifically, the establishment of the new Bureau would bring together the Office of International Health and Biodefense in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES/IHB) and the functions of the Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security (S/CRHS) with the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator (S/GAC), which leads and coordinates the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and is home to the Office of Global Health Diplomacy. These teams, along with critical partners throughout the government, are already leading our international global health security efforts, and their indispensable functions will continue. This new structure would allow our health security experts and diplomats to work more effectively together to prevent, detect, and respond to existing and future health threats.”

This would add a key health security position to the federal government while consolidating many of the Department’s efforts into a more cohesive team. Currently, apart from the State Department’s Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security, the only other federal position that is explicitly and primarily global health security focused is the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense (currently occupied by Dr. Raj Panjabi), though many positions are tasked with global health assignments.

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Releases COVID-19 Reports

This week, the US House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) released its declassified report on the Intelligence Community’s (IC) response to the COVID-19 pandemic following a two-year-long investigation. The report “…examines the IC’s posture to support global health security policymakers, the IC’s performance in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the steps the IC must take to strengthen any future pandemic response.” The report finds that the IC was initially not well-positioned or prepared to provide early warnings and analysis of the pandemic because of an inconsistent focus on health security and pandemics as national security threats. The report finds, however, that “…by the end of January, the IC was providing clear and consistent warning about a potential pandemic – including a classified briefing to the Intelligence Committee in mid-February – well in advance of former President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on March 13, 2020.”

In addition to its investigative findings, the report makes a number of unclassified recommendations, including:

1. The creation of a designated center in ODNI with a global health security mission;
2. Major investments in open-source intelligence;
3. Enhancements to the IC’s capability to pivot collection faster when a new disease emerges;
4. Additional resources and support for NCMI;
5. Better collaboration and integration of the IC with public health agencies;
6. Recognition that health security is national security;
7. Additional steps to create a sustainable demand signal for collection on global health security.

HPSCI Republicans also released their report on the origins of COVID-19 this week. The Republican report reads in part: “Every person in America has been directly or indirectly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lives were taken. Livelihoods destroyed. The mismanagement of the response to COVID-19 has led to societal crises like massive education loss for children, drug overdoses across communities, and a stark rise in mental health issues.

“Americans are owed answers about the origins of COVID-19 and future health threats, and they deserve leaders in Washington who remain steadfast in finding the truth.

“Today’s HPSCI report led by Rep. Wenstrup marks significant progress toward that objective. The findings identify more culpability from the Chinese Communist Party, highlight the failures of the Intelligence Community to share pertinent information with the American public and their authorized representatives, and give more credibility to the lab leak theory – which many government officials, Big Tech platforms, and media outlets were quick to label a ‘conspiracy theory.’

“A Republican majority will continue this critical work across all committees of jurisdiction and we commit to finding the facts on a pandemic that negatively impacted millions of American families. By doing so, our policies going forward will strive to ensure that our country is never vulnerable to these threats in the same way again.”

House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Releases Final Report on Nation’s COVID-19 Response

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis recently released its final report, building on previous Select Subcommittee findings and revealing “…new findings from several of the committee’s investigations, including findings related to the Trump Administration’s failure to recognize and prepare for the threat posed by the coronavirus in early 2020, which resulted in inaccurate testing and insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). The report also includes new information from the Select Subcommittee’s investigations into right-wing purveyors of coronavirus misinformation, and into the practices of for-profit nursing home chains and their toll on their vulnerable residents.” The final report also includes 30 recommendations to strengthen the nation’s ability to prevent and respond to public health and economic emergencies, including “accelerating development of next-generation coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics; investing in improved financial relief and public health infrastructure; combating misinformation; and protecting relief programs from fraud.”

Dr. Robert Kadlec’s May 2022 interview with the Select Subcommittee was also recently released to the public. Kadlec, a career USAF physician and former Director for Biodefense and Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for Biodefense Policy, served as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) from August 2017 to January 2021. Dr. Kadlec previously testified that the US was unprepared for a pandemic prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, he was heavily criticized for focusing his office’s efforts on preparing for acts of bioterrorism (and potentially failing to reveal a conflict of interest in doing so). Kadlec was also criticized for focusing on repatriation flights for Americans abroad early in 2020, rather than focusing on preparing for COVID-19’s arrival in the United States.

Kadlec told the Select Subcommittee in this interview about a number of problems in the federal government’s response, including a lack of information sharing. Kadlec said he struggled to acquire critical information about SARS-CoV-2 in early 2020, saying “My information from our intelligence sources in HHS were, quite frankly, lousy.” He also told the Select Subcommittee that the country was too focused on planning for pandemic influenza, with that planning being premised on symptomatic detection rather than diagnostic testing, which he described as “a significant hallmark and a flaw.” Importantly, Kadlec also discussed how a 2019 simulation run by the federal government identified a number of problems in pandemic response, including a lack of integration across federal agencies and findings that “everything that we probably would need in a pandemic … were sourced from China” and “the likelihood would be the supply chains would be disrupted and we just have just-in-time supplies.” The 329-page transcription is available here on the Select Subcommittee’s site.

“Pathogen Early Warning: A Progress Report & Path Forward”

The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) recently released this report co-authored by Dr. Saskia Popescu, a Senior Fellow at the Council and an Assistant Professor at the Schar school. It builds on a previous CSR report, “Toward a Global Pathogen Early Warning System: Building on the Landscape of Biosurveillance Today,” by aiming “…to update public understanding of contemporary biosurveillance and pathogen early warning capabilities across three dimensions: the United States government, select regions worldwide, and ongoing efforts toward global pathogen early warning integration. This report also seeks to provide an overview of the structural and technical tools required to create effective early warning systems. In doing so, CSR’s objective is to provide context for understanding the current state of biosurveillance, while also highlighting notable shifts since 2021.”

Emerging Infectious Diseases Supplement Issue

This supplemental issue, “CDC and Global Health Systems and Programs During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” includes an overview from CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in addition to a host of articles divided between Surveillance, Information, and Laboratory Systems; Workforce, Institutional, and Public Health Capacity Development; Clinical and Health Services Delivery and Impact; and Commentaries.

“Investing in Global Health Security: Estimating Cost Requirements for Country-Level Capacity Building”

Check out this new PLOS Global Public Health article from Eaneff et al.-

Abstract: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted critical gaps in global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious diseases. To effectively allocate investments that address these gaps, it is first necessary to quantify the extent of the need, evaluate the types of resources and activities that require additional support, and engage the global community in ongoing assessment, planning, and implementation. Which investments are needed, where, to strengthen health security? This work aims to estimate costs to strengthen country-level health security, globally and identify associated cost drivers. The cost of building public health capacity is estimated based on investments needed, per country, to progress towards the benchmarks identified by the World Health Organization’s Joint External Evaluation (JEE). For each country, costs are estimated to progress to a score of “demonstrated capacity” (4) across indicators. Over five years, an estimated US$124 billion is needed to reach “demonstrated capacity” on each indicator of the JEE for each of the 196 States Parties to the International Health Regulations (IHR). Personnel costs, including skilled health, public health, and animal health workers, are the single most influential cost driver, comprising 66% of total costs. These findings, and the data generated by this effort, provide cost estimates to inform ongoing health security financing discussions at the global level. The results highlight the significant need for sustainable financing mechanisms for both workforce development and ongoing support for the health and public health workforce.”

“Biomanufacturing to Advance the Bioeconomy”

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently released its new report recommending actions to promote the growth of the U.S. bioeconomy in three key areas: “boosting manufacturing capacity, addressing regulatory uncertainty, and updating our national strategy to meet the demands of the 21st century.” The White House press release states that “Specifically, the report recommends that agencies across the government work to establish biomanufacturing infrastructure hubs with the resources and authorities necessary to support new bioproducts moving from prototype to pilot scale production. The relevant agencies should also work together to build a network from new and existing biomanufacturing infrastructure hubs to support further development of biomanufacturing processes and support programs across the spectrum of postsecondary training opportunities in this area.”

Furthermore, “To address regulatory uncertainty that novel, cross-cutting bioproducts face, PCAST recommends that regulatory agencies create both more clear and transparent review and approval processes.  PCAST further recommends establishing a cross-agency rapid response team of regulatory experts that would vet these cross-cutting products, helping those that are safe and potentially transformative reach the market more rapidly…Finally, PCAST believes that a new, data-based, and adaptive national strategy is urgently needed to chart a course for the U.S. bioeconomy for the next decade. This strategy should consider the long-term economic, environmental, and societal benefits and liabilities of biotechnology, as well as the national security implications and ethical and legal issues.”

“ASTHO Unveils Top 10 Public Health Policy Issues to Watch in 2023”

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) released its list of the top 10 state public health policy issues to watch in 2023 this week. Their list includes immunization, reproductive health, overdose prevention, public health agency workforce and authority, mental health, data privacy and modernization, health equity, HIV, environmental health, and tobacco and nicotine products. Be sure to check out their list for their discussion of current challenges within each of these topics.

Managing Hazardous and Biohazardous Materials/Waste in the Laboratory Setting

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association recently announced this technical seminar offering from Triumvirate Environmental, which will take place at 6 pm on January 10, 2023 both virtually and in-person in Gaithersburg, MD. “Laboratories can generate biohazardous and hazardous waste. Confusion is not uncommon on what the differences are when it comes to disposal and handling.  This webinar will review the differences and discuss proper handling and disposal of each type of waste.  Potential recycling options will also be discussed.” Learn more and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

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

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

An Update from the Global Health Security Agenda Consortium

“On 28-30 November 2022, the Republic of Korea hosted the 7th Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting on the theme “Action for the Next Phase of the GHSA after COVID-19.”

“GHSA Member Countries and Organizations pledged to extend GHSA for another 5-year phase (January 1, 2024 – December 31, 2028), and endorsed the New Seoul Declaration which emphasized the need to continue strengthening multisectoral and multilateral cooperation to prepare for and respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as other infectious disease threats. The GHSA Steering Group will work collaboratively to establish plans outlining the goals and the scope of the next phase of GHSA, including revised targets for 2028, by December 2023.”

“Information on the New Seoul Declaration and other upcoming GHSA activities can be found on the re-launched GHSA website ( https://globalhealthsecurityagenda.org/) as well as via the official GHSA social media channels. The GHSA Consortium will continue to contribute actively to GHSA activities, including participating in Action Packages and co-leading the Task Force on Advocacy and Communications.”

You can also keep up with the GHSA on its website, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

The Pandora Report Wants to Hear from Biodefense Program Alumni!

Calling all graduates of the Biodefense Program-do you have any news to share from this year? We want to hear from you! The Pandora Report will be creating a year-in-review for our late December issue, and we want to include updates from current students and alumni alike. It can be anything from promotions, publications, new jobs, etc. that you would like to share. Share your updates with us at biodefense@gmu.edu before December 23 to be featured in the year-in-review and anytime you want to stay in touch.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). This week’s question is: “Who is the longest serving director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)?”

Shout out to Olivia N. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 1979, there was a suspicious outbreak of anthrax that killed over 60 people in a town located near a military research complex. For years, authorities blamed this outbreak on consumption of contaminated meat, though it was actually the result of an accidental release of Bacillus anthracis. What town did this happen in? (City Name, Country)” is Sverdlovsk, USSR (modern day Yekaterinburg, Russia).

Pandora Report: 12.9.2022

Happy National Influenza Vaccination Week! This edition is heavily COVID-19-focused, discussing China’s rollback of its Zero-COVID policy, probes into government handling of the COVID-19 responses in the US and New Zealand, and how the pandemic has influenced slang terms. We also cover several new publications, newly available research resources, and an exciting upcoming event with the National Academies. Have a great weekend and get your flu shot now if you haven’t already and are able to do so!

Three Years Wasted? China Lifts Zero-COVID Policies

Nearly three years into this pandemic, China is abandoning its Zero-COVID policy. Zero-COVID or Dynamic Clearing aimed to eliminate transmission of the virus in the country through strict testing requirements and lockdowns. This included whole-building lockdowns when one person in an apartment complex tested positive, long lines for COVID-19 testing, and negative QR code requirements to enter everything from coffee shops to public toilets. The Party claimed this harsh system was justified as, supposedly, the country had just two COVID-19 deaths in the 18 months after initial containment. China’s shockingly low case counts and deaths have frequently been the subject of suspicion in the last few years. Interestingly, China went this hard on lockdowns and testing, but did not centrally mandate vaccinations.

The vaccine strategy the country did employ has also been heavily criticized. Today, 89% of the population is estimated to have received their initial COVID-19 vaccine with about 57% having received a booster. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. While the government initially claimed it was close to producing its own mRNA offerings and that it would approve the BioNTech offering, today there are no mRNA COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the PRC. (Interestingly, Indonesia has granted Walvax Biotechnology’s mRNA vaccine an emergency use authorization.) China’s vaccination campaign has instead depended on two domestically-produced inactivated offerings-Sinopharm BIBP and CoronaVac.

Mathieu, E., Ritchie, H., Ortiz-Ospina, E. et al. A global database of COVID-19 vaccinations. Nat Hum Behav (2021)

In mid-2021, the WHO approved these offerings for emergency use based on limited clinical-trial data indicating that CoronaVac was about 51% effective while Sinopharm was about 79% effective. This was alright relative to the 63% efficacy reported for AstraZeneca’s viral-vector vaccine, but it was not as effective as the 90%+ reported for the Pfize-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA offerings. Nature News explained the initial criticism of China’s vaccines, writing “Both the Chinese vaccines are inactivated vaccines, which use killed SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers say this type of vaccine seems to be less potent because it triggers an immune response against many viral proteins. By contrast, mRNA and viral-vector vaccines target the response to the spike protein, which is what the virus uses to enter human cells.”

Then the Omicron variant came…This created a situation in which the country had a particularly vulnerable elderly population with very low trust in the government, a Party caught up in its own vaccine nationalism, and a more transmissible variant. As we have discussed previously, this eventually led to even more lockdowns and forced relocations to isolation center than before, eventually leading to widespread protests. Now, after three years, the government is rolling back its strict Zero-COVID policy as concerns about a coming massive wave of cases and deaths grow.

Now people are being encouraged to stay home if they are sick unless they are severely ill as rising case counts threaten to overwhelm hospitals. When people do arrive at hospitals, workers screen them for fevers and more severe symptoms, turning away those with milder symptoms. This is especially problematic as a large part of the public-facing justification for Zero-COVID was that infection often leads to severe illness, conflicting with what the public is being told now.

The New York Times quoted Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese pulmonologist, saying “The infections are not scary. Ninety-nine percent of the people who get infected can fully recover within 7 to 10 days. As long as we get plenty of rest, isolate ourselves and stay at home, we can recover quickly.” However, this ignores the risk of things like Long COVID and is contradictory to models many are now pointing to.

Science Insider explained earlier this month that, “A study based on vaccination rates in March, published in Nature Medicine in May, found that lifting zero-COVID restrictions at that point could “generate a tsunami of COVID-19 cases” over a 6-month period, with 112 million symptomatic cases, 2.7 million intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and 1.6 million deaths. Peak demand for ICU beds would hit 1 million, more than 15 times the current capacity.” The Economist released a more conservative estimate predicting 680,000 COVID-19 deaths in the absence of Zero-COVID in China. However, their model depended on everyone who needs an ICU bed getting one, “which they would not,” according to the publication.

So, in the face of a potential “winter of death,” many are asking now why the country did not better prepare for this reopening in the three years it spent shutting the country down. Others are asking what this means for Xi Jinping and the Party as it seems likely they will have caved to public demand in a way that will lead to mass suffering in death. While the Party is likely to spin the narrative in whatever way benefits it most no matter what happens next, this is shaping up to be an even more eventful next couple of months for the PRC.

On a related note, James Fallows, President Carter’s speechwriter, interviewed long-term Mandarin translator Brendan O’Kane about ProPublica’s disputed piece on the Wuhan Institute of Virology we covered previously. The interview is fantastic and expertly explains the variety of problems in Toy Reid’s translations and why they fundamentally effect the integrity of the piece.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Majority Releases Report on Federal COVID-19 Response

This week Senate Democrats released their 241-page report covering the Trump administration’s early response to COVID-19, identifying both missteps on the part of the administration and multiple systemic issues in the federal government. The report, released by the Homeland Security Committee majority, relies on “documents and interviews with key Trump administration officials, including Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to The New York Times.

The report identifies several issues like that “a public health emergency fund created to support state and local health systems had received no new appropriations since 1999 and had been “virtually empty” since 2012,” and that preparedness planning from 2005 through 2019 was too narrowly focused on influenza. Of the COVID-19 response, Committee Chairman Senator Gary Peters said, “There’s no question that political decisions were being made and that those decisions were unfortunately considered more important than what was being put out by public health officials.” He added, “And so that got politicized in a way that it should have never been politicized — and lives would have likely been saved.”

New Zealand Announces Inquiry Into COVID-19 Response

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern announced Monday this week a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Wellington’s COVID-19 response. Led by Australia-based epidemiologist Tony Blakely, the inquiry has 17 months to conduct research and form its report. New Zealand was both praised and criticized in its initial response to the pandemic, which focused on elimination and included closing the country’s borders and imposing strict lockdowns for much of the first two years. In August 2021, amid community transmission of the Delta variant in Auckland and Wellington, the country abandoned its elimination strategy and accelerated its vaccine rollout.

So far, beyond questions of the efficacy of the country’s lockdowns, a major point of criticism focuses on the country planning for a single disease. AP reports that “COVID-19 Response Minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall said one of the lessons was that having a prescriptive pandemic plan, like New Zealand’s influenza-based plan before COVID-19 hit, was not much use. “I imagine the lesson has been learned that just looking at the characteristics of one bug isn’t going to cut it,” Verrall said. “You have to look much more broadly.”

WHO Members States to Develop Zero Draft of Pandemic Accord

This week, the WHO announced that member states have agreed to develop a first draft of what will eventually become a legally binding agreement rooted in the WHO constitution to help protect the world from future pandemics. The draft will be prepared so it can be discussed in February 2023 at the fourth Intergovernmental Negotiating Body meeting. According to WHO, “This draft will be based on the conceptual zero draft and the discussions during this week’s INB meeting. The INB Bureau is comprised of six delegates, one from each of the six WHO regions, including the Co-Chairs Mr Roland Driece of the Netherlands and Ms Precious Matsoso of South Africa.”

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human lives, economies and societies at large must never be forgotten,” said Ms Matsoso. “The best chance we have, today, as a global community, to prevent a repeat of the past is to come together, in the spirit of solidarity, in a commitment to equity, and in the pursuit of health for all, and develop a global accord that safeguards societies from future pandemic threats.” 

Going Goblin Mode

Coronacation, Miss Rona, the panini/pandemi lovato/✨panorama✨…the COVID-19 pandemic brought lots of interesting new slang. One such term, goblin mode, is getting special attention, however. If you gained a favorite sweatshirt over the course of the pandemic that you don’t wash as often as you probably ought to, this one’s for you. “Goblin mode,” a slang term for a “type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations,” was recently named Oxford Languages’ 2022 Word of the Year. The term dates back to at least 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that it went viral. “It captured the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to ‘normal life’, or rebelled against the increasingly unattainable aesthetic standards and unsustainable lifestyles exhibited on social media,” Oxford Languages said in a press release.

NPR writes, “The slang particularly struck a chord with people who felt disillusioned by the third year of the pandemic and the ongoing political upheavals around the world. In response, they are rejecting societal expectations and making their own rules of how to live. The trend is marked by a departure from respectability and aesthetic. Instead, it encourages people to lean into their uncurated, self-indulgent and sometimes mischievous ways.”

Now, if you’re saying “But I’ve never heard of goblin mode,” here are some examples: Academic types-there is at least a 50% chance your office qualifies as being in goblin mode.

Cat parents-you know what we’re talking about here.

“Biodefense and Emergency Use Authorization: Different Originations, Purposes, and Evolutionary Paths of Institutions in the United States and South Korea”

Biodefense Program alumnus Dr. HyunJung Kim recently published this article in Globalization and Health. Abstract: “Background: Emergency-use-authorization (EUA) is the representative biodefense policy that allows the use of unlicensed medical countermeasures or off-label use of approved medical countermeasures in response to public health emergencies. This article aims to determine why the EUA policies of the United States and South Korea produced drastically different outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these outcomes were determined by the originations and evolutionary paths of the two policies.”

“Method: Historical institutionalism (HI) explains institutional changes—that is, how the institution is born and how it evolves—based on the concept of path dependency. However, the HI analytical narratives remain at the meso level of analysis in the context of structure and agency. This article discusses domestic and policy-level factors related to the origination of the biodefense institutions in the United States and South Korea using policy-learning concepts with the Event-related Policy Change Model.”

“Results: The 2001 anthrax letter attack (Amerithrax) and the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak prompted the establishment of biodefense institutions in the United States and South Korea, respectively. Due to the different departure points and the mechanism of path dependency, the two countries’ EUAs evolved in different ways—the United States EUA reinforced the Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) function, while the South Korea EUA strengthened the Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI) function.”

“Conclusion: The evolution and outcomes of the two EUAs are different because both policies were born out of different needs. The United States EUA is primarily oriented toward protecting homeland security against CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) threats, whereas the South Korea EUA is specifically designed for disease prevention against infectious disease outbreak.”

“Preparing for Twenty-First-Century Bioweapons”

Biodefense Program alumnus Dr. Yong-Bee Lim recently co-authored this piece with Dr. Kathleen Vogel and David Gillum using the ongoing BWC RevCon to discuss the roles NGOs can play in advancing security. They write, “As the BWC enters its 50th year, it’s time to prepare for a future world with weapons and wars that do not look like those that the treaty was designed to prevent. In this complex process, NGOs can play vital, diverse roles in strengthening the BWC and enlarging the field of global actors that engage with nonproliferation and disarmament. NGOs can bring new resources and perspectives to a daunting task of envisioning how the life sciences themselves may evolve to permit new threats, as well as new means of control. By deliberately engaging participants from the entire world, particularly the Global South, the BWC has an opportunity to gain trust and cooperation at the grassroots level. In these capacities, NGOs may be indispensable in establishing global norms and policies against biological weapons threats and continuing the considerable success of the BWC in an unknown future.”

“Recounting the Top IPC Stories of 2022”

Biodefense Program alumna and Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu recently authored this piece for Infection Control Today summarizing top stories from 2022 and what to expect next year. In it she covers everything from polio, to mpox, to RSV, to Russia’s BW disinformation, so be sure to give it a read.

“Uncovering the Hard Work Behind the World’s Push for an Ebola Sudan Vaccine”

In this piece, Dr. Caitlin Rivers interviews Dr. Andrew Kilianski (an Adjunct Professor who teaches biosurveillance at the Schar School and Senior Director for Emerging Infectious Disease Vaccines at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI)) on his organization’s efforts to develop a vaccine candidate for Ebola Sudan virus. In it, Kilianski discusses IAVI and his role in it, the process of bringing a vaccine candidate through preclinical and clinical phases, and challenges organizations are facing in trying to respond to the current Ebola outbreak in Uganda.

2022 Bioeconomy Executive Order White Papers

From the Engineer Biology Research Consortium: “On September 12, 2022, President Biden released an Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. This Executive Order calls for “a whole-of-government approach to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing towards innovative solutions in health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.” The Executive Order follows additional action by the United States Congress to support the bioeconomy and biomanufacturing, most notably the passage of Title IV—Bioeconomy Research and Development in the Chips and Science Act.”

“To capitalize on this moment of importance and enthusiasm for a growing and robust U.S. bioeconomy, EBRC is publishing a series of policy white papers on topics of importance to EBRC members and the engineering biology community that we believe can provide guidance and recommendations to the federal agencies tasked with responding to the Executive Order.” These white papers are available here. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz serves on the EBRC Security Working Group and contributed to the “Biosafety & Biosecurity Innovation Initiative” white paper.

“Stakeholder Perspectives on the Biological Weapons Convention”

From UNIDIR: “Efforts to enhance biological disarmament and build biosecurity can no longer be achieved by States alone. It will require support from stakeholders around the globe if we are to achieve progress in the Biological Weapons Convention and wider efforts to strengthen biological security. Unfortunately, stakeholder perspectives are not necessarily always well understood or reflected in biological disarmament diplomacy. And some sectors are almost entirely absent from discussions.”

“To address this challenge, UNIDIR invited a diverse range of stakeholders and representatives from around the world and with diverse backgrounds to contribute their insights to this report. The contributions reflect activities they had undertaken in support of the BWC, what more their respective communities could do, and provide recommendations on what States Parties to the BWC should do (or not do) to advance the BWC. Collectively, these contributions provide several concrete ideas for BWC States Parties to consider in seeking to strengthen the Convention.” Read here.

Disarmament, Security and Development Nexus: Compendium of UNIDIR Annual Youth Disarmament Essay Competition’s Best Essays

“The first annual UNIDIR Global Youth Disarmament Essay competition was launched in 2022, responding to the calls for giving a voice to young people on the connections between disarmament and development. The Republic of Korea generously supported this essay competition. The theme of the first UNIDIR Global Youth Disarmament Essay competition was the ‘Disarmament, Security and Development Nexus’. Students and young professionals aged between 18 to 29 years old were invited to submit an essay that explored one of the following areas: Disarmament, economic growth, and inequalities; Disarmament for sustainable cities; Innovative disarmament efforts in light of the 21st century’s environmental challenges; Gender mainstreaming for sustainable disarmament and development.” Check out the top five essays from the competition here.

“The Future Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Pathogens”

Sarah Scoles’ recent piece for Coda Media discusses the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility’s (NBAF) struggle to balance the important work it is designed to do with genuine and ingenuine community and broader concerns, writing, “In high-containment biology labs like NBAF, though, the line between antagonistic misinformation and grounded concern is thin. And that means NBAF has to balance (at least) three things: the value of its research, the real risks of keeping big-time germs around and public concerns, both real and imagined.”

Scoles covers the story of microbiologist Lisa Hensley’s journey to NBAF, the security features of the facility, and the public discussion about the lab fraught with fears ranging from “I don’t want my cattle to get sick because of an accident” and “they are planning the next great pandemic.” You won’t want to miss this one!

“Operational Evaluation of the FDA Human Foods Program”

From the Reagan-Udall Foundation: “On December 6, 2022, the Independent Expert Panel for Foods submitted its report on the Operational Evaluation of FDA’s Human Foods Program to FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf. The evaluation and report were facilitated by the Reagan-Udall Foundation at Dr. Califf’s request.”

“The evaluation of FDA’s Human Foods Program launched on September 8, 2022. The evaluation focused on structure/leadership, authorities, resources, and culture, expecting to provide recommendations that would equip FDA to carry out its regulatory responsibilities, strengthen its relationships with state and local governments, and secure the nation’s food supply for the future. (The review excludes cosmetic and dietary supplement responsibilities.)”

Improving the IC’s Leveraging of the Full S&T Ecosystem

From the National Academies: “The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) depends on knowledge of cutting edge science and technology (S&T) to inform intelligence missions and compete with its adversaries. At the request of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Academies established a committee to explore ways in which the intelligence community might best leverage the S&T ecosystem.”

“Please join us for a webinar on our new report, Improving the Intelligence Community’s Leveraging of the Full Science and Technology Ecosystem, on Wednesday, December 14 at 11 am ET. During the webinar, members of the committee will present the report’s key findings and discuss how the IC can better leverage S&T knowledge that exists across the broader government, domestic, and global environments.” Register here.

Call for Nominations: Future of the Nation’s Laboratory Systems for Health Emergency Response: A Workshop

“A planning committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will organize and convene a two-day public workshop. During this workshop, invited participants from government, non-governmental organizations, and private sector organizations will explore the United States’ laboratory and testing responses to past, present, and potential health emergencies (e.g., COVID-19; monkey pox; chemical, radiological or nuclear threats), and will discuss the future of laboratory capabilities, capacities, and coordination for health emergencies response across public and private entities nationally. This workshop will focus on operational aspects of laboratory response, rather than technology development, including topics such as collaboration, coordination, information sharing, workforce, capacities and capabilities, and access.” Learn more and submit nominations here.

Violent Non-State Actor Chemical, Biological Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Data Portal Goes Live

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Unconventional Weapons & Technology Division has launched its new Violent Non-State Actor Chemical, Biological Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Data Portal. START explains that, “In order to provide a basis for rigorous empirical analysis of the CBRN terrorism phenomenon, UWT developed three databases: Profiles Of Incidents involving CBRN and Non-state actors (POICN); Chemical And Biological Non-State Adversaries Database (CABNSAD); and Radiological And Nuclear Non-State Actor Database (RANNSAD). These databases represent the largest open source publicly available databases on ideologically motivated CBRN events and individuals who pursue and/or use CBRN weapons.”

NCSC Safeguarding Science Toolkit

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center and its partners recently announced “a unique collaboration between elements of the U.S. intelligence and scientific communities to help the U.S. research enterprise mitigate the broad spectrum of risk it faces from nation-state, criminal, and other threat actors…The Safeguarding Science online toolkit is designed for individuals and organizations in the U.S. scientific, academic, and emerging technology sectors who are seeking to develop their own programs to protect research, technology, and personnel from theft, abuse, misuse, or exploitation.”

“The Safeguarding Science toolkit was designed with the scientific community for the scientific community. It provides research stakeholders with a single location to access security best practices from across government and academia and to select those tools tailored for their individual needs. NCSC and its partners seek to promote a robust and resilient U.S. research ecosystem that emphasizes integrity, collaboration, openness, and security, all of which facilitate innovation.”

The Pandora Report Wants to Hear from Biodefense Program Alumni!

Calling all graduates of the Biodefense Program-do you have any news to share from this year? We want to hear from you! The Pandora Report will be creating a year-in-review for our late December issue, and we want to include updates from current students and alumni alike. It can be anything from promotions, publications, new jobs, etc. that you would like to share. Share your updates with us at biodefense@gmu.edu before December 23 to be featured in the year-in-review and anytime you want to stay in touch.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week: In 1979, there was a suspicious outbreak of anthrax that killed over 60 people in a town located near a military research complex. For years, authorities blamed this outbreak on consumption of contaminated meat, though it was actually the result of an accidental release of Bacillus anthracis. What town did this happen in? (City Name, Country)

Shout out to Georgios P. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Which country most recently became a State Party to the Biological Weapons Convention?” is Namibia.

Pandora Report: 12.2.2022

What a week it has been! This time we cover the first week of the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference, China’s Zero COVID protests, and more. We also have a number of new publications and a new video from INTERPOL about weaponizable chemicals. Make sure to read to the end too for a fun new way to engage with the Pandora Report!

The Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference Gets Underway

It was never any secret that this RevCon was going to be one for the history books, but this first week has delivered on that promise and then some. Of course, the Russian Federation brought plenty of drama to the Palais des Nations, withdrawing from the Eastern European Group and voicing complaints that its invasion of Ukraine, which was referenced in numerous national statements, is outside the scope of the conference and that only Western countries describe its numerous false claims as groundless. In response to the former, Czechia responded with “If Russia doesn’t like it, they should simply not invade their neighbors.” Other countries have taken to selectively switching to speaking in Russian while delivering statements about who the aggressor in this situation is, giving a sense of schadenfreude reality TV could never.

The US used the right of reply to respond to Russia early this week, with US Special Representative Kenneth Ward explaining “During the Article V Formal Consultative Meeting, the United States, jointly with Ukraine, fully addressed the unfounded concerns raised by the Russian Federation. However, it was clear from the outset of the Article V process that Russia never intended to engage constructively with Ukraine and the United States. It came to our attention on the very first day of the meeting that the Russian delegation had already made up its mind and circulated a draft of a proposed “joint statement” to select delegations regarding the outcome of this Article V Consultation. In this draft joint statement, the Russian Federation explicitly concluded that Ukraine and the United States had failed to answer questions regarding the activities of biological laboratories in Ukraine – a conclusion it reached before the United States and Ukraine even began our joint presentation.”

The US also pushed back on Russia’s withdrawal from the Eastern European Group (which, by the way, was done because an unnamed member of the group blocked Russia’s nominations), stating “There is a final issue which I would like to briefly address. As we are all aware, the BWC forum operates based on a three-group system. Yesterday, a State Party indicated that it was withdrawing from its current group and forming a new “Group of One.” This is a new situation, and the United States reserves its position with respect to the implications of any new group for geographical rotation, vice-chair positions, etc. Any departure from current arrangements based on the existing three-group system would require a consensus decision by all States Parties.”

It hasn’t all been drama, however, with several productive side events and remarks from relevant organizations focused on everything from disinformation to discussion of new approaches to protecting the world from biological weapons.

Biodefense Program Students and Alumni Speak at BWC

Naturally, a number of current students and alumni of our program are making their mark at RevCon. Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser delivered remarks on behalf of the Global Biolabs Initiative, led by Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London. The Schar School recently posted about Houser’s remarks here, explaining “Houser’s statement called on nations where high-risk pathogen work is conducted to have laws and regulations that provide adequate oversight and to update them frequently. He also called for cooperation among the labs to share best practices and participate in peer reviews.”

Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser delivering remarks at RevCon in Geneva

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, an alumnus of the program and the current Deputy Director of the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons at the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR), also delivered remarks this week. Dr. Lim spoke on behalf of CSR, acknowledging the importance of this particular RevCon. He said in part, “This Review Conference alone will not solve these issues. Yet what happens here will mark a historic point of departure where the community can choose to go down one of two paths. The first path leads towards a future where nations pursue mutual security through international cooperation and put in the hard work necessary to reduce biological threats together. The second path leads toward a future of even greater mistrust and further fracturing of international norms and practices. For the Council on Strategic Risks, it is our firm belief that the first path, where nations pursue mutual security through international collaboration, is the only pathway towards true security for all.”

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim delivering remarks at RevCon in Geneva

If you’re looking to keep up with RevCon, you can watch public sessions on UN WebTV and summaries of each day’s events on CBW Events’ website.

CWC Coalition Wins The Hague Aware at Chemical Weapons Convention 27th CSP

The 27th Conference of the States Parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention is wrapping up today in The Hague. The winners of the prestigious The Hague Award were announced in conjunction with the event, with this year’s winners including the Special Risks Brigade of the Federal Police of Argentina, the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition, and the Population Protection Institute of the Fire Rescue Service of the Czech Republic. The CWC Coalition, which Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz is a member of, “is an independent, international civil society network committed to supporting the aims and universalization of the CWC and supplementing the work of the member states of the OPCW. The Coalition’s work is made possible by the support of the Global Affairs Canada Weapons Threat Reduction Program and the Arms Control Association.”

Dr. Koblentz was also recently quoted in Politico‘s coverage of concerns about Russia using CW in Ukraine. The piece explains “Experts and officials said tracking pharmaceutical-based agents and gathering intelligence about their development, particularly for offensive purposes, has become increasingly difficult. The substances used to develop chemical weapons are concealed easily and can be embedded within legitimate industries, said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.” He also told Politico, “Our traditional intelligence methods that we’re really good at, like satellite imagery and signals intelligence, aren’t really that useful for telling you what’s going on inside one of these core biological facilities,” Koblentz said. “You really need human intelligence to do that, which is very hard to get.”

Between a Rock and a Hard Place-Will China Pick COVID-19 Control or Political Control?

In an especially eventful couple weeks, Jiang Zemin, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China died aged 96, the infamous “CRISPR baby” scientist He Jiankui announced the establishment of his new laboratory in Beijing after his release from prison, and Rao Yi praised UK Biobank and called for more genetic information sharing in China–all as the government grappled with growing protests and backlash against its Zero COVID policies. Oh, and ProPublica doubled down on its widely criticized article on the Wuhan Institute of Virology it co-published with Vanity Fair.

Lockdown Protests Across China

As images of people across China holding up blank sheets of white paper flood the internet, speculation about protesters’ ultimate desires have swirled as attention has been draw to pushback on the PRC’s Zero COVID policies. China’s approach to COVID-19 control has been incredibly strict, frequently forcing people to remain at home for months with inadequate access to food and other necessities. These are not people protesting normal public health measures-they are pushing back against an authoritarian government that has upended their lives repeatedly while failing to adequately invest in long-term solutions like effective vaccines. Furthermore, Chinese nationalism can be complicated and it is important to consider it in a non-comparative context.

In a wide display of civil disobedience that has been largely absent from the country in recent years, protesters have taken to the streets to call for the end of such draconian policies. This has been fueled in part by access to western media and shots of crowds at events like the FIFA World Cup, and it is especially risky business in the PRC. This is because of the scope of surveillance in the country, with police stations using facial recognition software to identify people captured on the countless surveillance cameras across the country. While the protests do seem to have spurred some relaxation in Zero COVID policies, it has not been without consequences as the police are cracking down on protesters.

China’s New “People First” Approach to COVID-19, Policy Rollbacks in Major Population Centers

Beyond actual outbreak control and prevention, China’s Zero COVID policies have been intertwined with efforts to further narratives that the PRC is more orderly and successful than the West. For example, official publications have contrasted the “rule of China” with the “chaos in the West” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, using this narrative to counter perceived western political globalization. Xi Jinping has also repeatedly stressed that China’s post-COVID recovery will be “a time of opportunity when “the East is rising and the West is declining.”‘ Zero COVID policies are clearly high stakes political tools that the government has increasingly relied on in the face of poor vaccination rates and struggles with new variants.

However, this has all seemingly been thrown out the window this week as policymakers make major shifts to epidemic control and prevention measures across the country. On November 11, China’s National Health Commission announced its much anticipated 20 measures to further optimize COVID prevention and control, in which it was reiterated that Beijing was not backing down or relaxing its measures at all. However this proved to not be the case.

For example, just three days later, Shijiazhuang (a city of over 11 million and the capital of Hebei province) became the first city to cancel mass PCR testing. However, on November 20, the city restored mass PCR testing in six districts and restricted residents in high-risk areas from leaving their homes, advising others to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Yesterday, China Daily reported that Shijiazhuang will “…gradually resume normal production and life order starting Thursday as the chain of transmission during an ongoing COVID-19 epidemic has been basically cut, a top official of the city said at a news conference on Wednesday night.”

This new brand of optimism has been echoed elsewhere, including in a recent speech by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, in the relaxation of restrictions in other major cities like Guangzhou and Chongqing (despite rising infections), and in less prominent publications that recently claimed the Omicron subvariant is not very serious and that there is no evidence of Long COVID. These are bold claims that reflect changing policies as the government tries to adapt to the precarious situation unfolding currently. Zhejiang’s CCP Provincial Committee even published a post on WeChat this week titled ‘”People First,” not “Epidemic Control First”‘ claiming, among other things, that “Epidemic prevention and control is about keeping out viruses, not about keeping out people. It has always been about “people first,” not any so-called “epidemic prevention first.”’

Of course, this isn’t entirely a political issue. There are real people’s lives at stake, a fact that is likely to become even more clear as this rollback clashes with the fact that the PRC lags on COVID-19 vaccinations. The country’s vaccination rates have struggled, with just 40% of those over 80 having received a booster shot as of November 11. The government is currently touting its big push to get more people, especially the elderly, vaccinated and boosted, but is it too little too late? The country is still relying on its domestic vaccines, which have proven substantially less effective than foreign offerings, including mRNA versions. During Hong Kong’s Omicron surge earlier this year, two doses of China’s Sinovac proved to be only 58% effective in preventing severe disease or death in those over 80 (in contrast to 87% with two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech offering). Furthermore, a The New York Times notes, “…China’s last major vaccination push was in the spring, an interval of eight months or more since the last dose for many recipients.”

The lackluster efficacy combined with low interest in the vaccine, in part because Beijing’s strategy opted to focus so heavily on lockdowns and widespread testing, are a dangerous combination. This also looks to be poised to cause more issues as, in a rush to vaccinate a hesitant elderly population, the recommended time between the initial series of Sinovac and the first booster dose is also being reduced from six months to three. Whatever happens next, it is likely to be very interesting…

ProPublica Doubles Down on Heavily Criticized Article

Last month, we discussed ProPublica’s article about supposed CCP dispatches from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), explaining the flawed translations and mischaracterization of the website in question. ProPublica has now released an editor’s note discussing criticisms aimed at the October 28 piece that, unfortunately, fails to adequately address the issues raised with the piece. ProPublica’s Stephen Engelberg explains in the note “Over the past several weeks, reporters and editors at both publications have taken a hard look at those criticisms. Our examination affirms that the story, and the totality of reporting it marshals, is sound.”

The note goes on to recount how the publication re-interviewed some of its original sources and reached out to “…three Chinese language experts with impeccable credentials who were not involved in the original story to review Reid’s translation,” who are also anonymous like those consulted in the original piece. ProPublica first focuses on a post made on the WIV website that the initial piece claimed was discussing a biosafety incident at the facility. As we and others discussed, however, this was a news post talking in very inspirational terms about the day-to-day functions of the lab and the safety culture the organization tries to maintain.

However, ProPublica claims this new batch of experts “…all agreed that his [Toy Reid-the translator ProPublica relied on in their piece] version was a plausible way to represent the passage, though two also said they would have translated the words to refer to the dangers of day-to-day lab operations. The third produced a translation that was in line with Reid’s. All agreed the passage was ambiguous. We have updated the story to underscore the complexity of interpreting that dispatch.” The note later states “It remains clear that in 2019, the WIV was addressing serious safety issues while scientists there faced pressure to perform. Risky coronavirus research took place in laboratories that lacked the maximum biocontainment safeguards, according to the interim report.”

Later on, the note returns to this passage and criticisms of its context, explaining that Reid thought it had a defensive tone, saying “Before we published our story, Reid told us he found the passage to have a defensive tone. In the story, we quote Reid as concluding, “They are almost saying they know Beijing is about to come down and scream at them.” The note also says of the original three translators’ work, “All three of their translations were different from one another’s and different from Reid’s. Yet, each agreed that Reid’s translation was one plausible way to translate the passage into English. Our translators looked at the Chinese characters that Reid had translated to read “Every time this has happened” and instead said they read them to mean “on such occasions” or “at every such an occasion.””

The note addresses other criticisms with varying levels of success, including those focused on mis-matched dates in the piece and confusion over patent filings. However, it ignores a number of other criticisms and fails to address key issues raised with these translations. First, pointing to multiple translators coming up with different versions of this passage than the one ProPublica predicated its narrative on is not sufficient to absolve the publication of poor practices. This is especially true as the note provides virtually no context about who these “Chinese language experts with impeccable credentials” are and how much context they were provided. The original translation notes ProPublica provided seemed to ignore entire halves of sentences in an attempt to confirm a certain narrative, which makes this lack of information in the editor’s note particularly concerning.

Second, this note still ignores critical questions about Reid’s methodology and the core of the piece’s argument. The piece claims to have unearthed “dispatches” from the WIV that hinted at biosafety issues, other security problems, and urgent, high-level visits to the facility in light of these supposed incidents. However, as we discussed last time, these were posts uploaded to the general news tab of the WIV website. The passages the ProPublica piece relies on include propagandistic, general descriptions of daily work in a BSL-4, claims that workers are so dedicated that they sacrifice their time off and well-being to make sure the facility is safe, and the constant push of everyone involved to make the WIV safer and better. However, again, even if these were actually dispatches secretively discussing serious problems at the lab, why would they be publicly available on the WIV website?

The crux of this piece is that WIV and the Chinese government covered up a lab leak that led to this horrible, destructive pandemic. Why, then, would they publicly post and maintain these posts about biosafety issues at this facility? The Party and its organs are secretive and interested in controlling narratives to better their image-especially when it comes to high-profile facilities like the nation’s first P4 facility. If ProPublica wants to portray these posts as damning evidence that the WIV had remarkable biosafety issues that allowed SARS-CoV-2 to escape and spread in Wuhan, then the question of why that kind of information would be allowed to remain on the site of such a high-profile facility must be answered.

Finally, this note did not address concerns about exoticism, Sinophobia, and the general overpromise that this unknown State Department political officer who went to Harvard and worked at RAND somehow has this unique, esoteric understanding of Mandarin. There is a line between understanding how the CCP legitimizes itself through narratives and inappropriately presenting China and Chinese people as an especially unique case beyond understanding. Furthermore, the piece largely seems to have overstated the skills and methods of Reid, relying on building him up to be somehow uniquely well-suited for this work and hyping up, of all things, his use of a VPN to access the WIV website. In addition to the spread of false information, these issues point to a concerning trend in public discourse about China that harms the real people who fall victim to the dangerous rhetoric this feeds into. As we talked about last time, shoddy work like this helps nobody. It ultimately empowers those with prejudiced views, muddies public discourse, and mischaracterizes the very real threats to security posed by the PRC.

Other Updates

World AIDS Day

December 1 was World AIDS Day, an annual commemoration aimed at uniting to show support for those living with HIV and to honor those who died from AIDS and related illnesses. Tens of millions of people have died of AIDS-related causes since the epidemic began and HIV still presents a major global health threat today.

Felix Richter explained this week for Statista that “According to estimates from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 10 countries accounted for almost half of all new HIV infections in 2021. South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda alone nearly accounted for nearly one third of the estimated 1.5 million new infections last year, indicating that Sub-Saharan Africa remains the epicenter of the HIV pandemic.”

He continued, “While the number of new infections has dropped from 2.9 million in 2000 to 1.5 million last year, the number of people living with HIV increased from 26 million to more than 38 million over the past two decades. According to UNAIDS, the increase is not only caused by new infections, but also a testament to the progress that has been made in treating HIV with antiretroviral therapy, which has vastly improved the outlook of those infected with HIV.”

Credit: Statista

Mpox

The WHO recently announced that it will begin using “mpox” as its preferred term and a synonym for monkeypox. This decision was made in consultation with global experts because “When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO. In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name.”

WHO will use mpox alongside monkeypox for a year before phasing out use of the latter term. According to WHO, “Considerations for the recommendations included rationale, scientific appropriateness, extent of current usage, pronounceability, usability in different languages, absence of geographical or zoological references, and the ease of retrieval of historical scientific information.”

WHO also stated “The issue of the use of the new name in different languages was extensively discussed.  The preferred term mpox can be used in other languages. If additional naming issues arise, these will be addressed via the same mechanism. Translations are usually discussed in formal collaboration with relevant government authorities and the related scientific societies.”

This reflects a push in recent years to change how diseases are named in recognition of the stigma and harm brought by naming diseases after places, people, and animals. WHO released its “Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases” in 2015 to help provide guidelines for using more general terms to describe new infectious diseases. This issue was again brought to the forefront amid spikes in attacks targeting Asian people since the COVID-19 pandemic began in Wuhan as racist rhetoric surrounding cultural practices and the disease’s origin flooded public discourse. The FBI documented a 77% increase in hate crimes against Asian people living in the United States from 2019 to 2020, though it is likely these kinds of crimes are chronically under-reported.

“Health+ Long COVID Report”

This Department of Health and Human Services’ report “highlights patients’ experience of Long COVID to better understand its complexities and drive creative responses by government leaders, clinicians, patient advocates and others.” It builds “on the President’s Memorandum on Addressing the Long-Term Effects of COVID-⁠19 and the two previously issued HHS Long COVID reports. The report was commissioned by HHS and produced by Coforma, an independent third-party design and research agency. It provides recommendations on how to deliver high-quality care, and relevant and intentional resources and supports to individuals and families impacted by Long COVID.” Read the report here.

“WHO Guiding Principles for Pathogenic Genome Data Sharing”

This new set of guidelines from WHO outlines best practices for sharing genomic data: “WHO encourages the sharing of pathogen genome data to protect global public health. Sharing of pathogen genome data is critical for preventing, detecting, and responding to epidemics and pandemics at national and international levels, and is in the interest of all Member States. The regular collection and sharing of such data are also important for monitoring and responding to endemic diseases and for tracking antimicrobial resistance to inform policy decisions. Practices and policies for sharing pathogen genome data must be ethical, equitable, efficient, and effective. After wide consultation, WHO has developed these foundational principles, which focus on public health uses, as well as urgent immediate research priorities.”

Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons: Preventing the Misuse of the Chemical and Life Sciences

This new book “…explores how revolutionary developments and convergence of the chemical, life and associated sciences are impacting contemporary toxin and bioregulator research, and examines the risks of such research being misused for malign purposes. Investigating illustrative cases of dual use research of potential concern in China, India, Iran, Russia, Syria and the USA, the authors discuss how states can ensure such research and related activities are not utilised in weapons development. Although toxins and bioregulators are, in theory, covered by both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention, this apparent overlap in reality masks a dangerous regulatory gap – with neither Convention implemented effectively to address threats of weaponisation. This book highlights the potentially damaging consequences for international peace and security, and proposes realistic routes for action by states and the scientific community.”

“Verification and Transparency: Learning from Project Coast”

In The Trench‘s fifth issue of the Historical Notes story, Professor Brian Rappert, Ms. Lizeka Tandwa, and Dr. Chandré Gould discuss the history of South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons program. The explain that “This Historical Note discusses how transparency and truth-telling have figured in securing confidence nationally and internationally. Our assessment is that fact-sharing, truth-telling and transparency about the apartheid-era chemical and biological warfare programme were not the key ingredients leading to confidence regarding South Africa’s commitment to the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC). To illuminate this position, we evaluate the roles of truth in (1) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa, and (2) South Africa’s transparency (or lack thereof) in the BTWC. The authors begin by briefly describing the activities of South Africa’s CBW programme and the questions that linger about it. This serves as an entry to unpacking the roles of truth and confidence, both welcomed and unwelcomed roles.”

“Countering Hybrid Threats in Bulgaria”

JD Maddox, an adjunct professor at the Schar School who teaches courses on countering disinformation, recently delivered the keynote address at an event introducing this policy brief from the Center for the Study of Democracy. The brief explains, “Russia has long prepared its war in Ukraine by deploying the full array of hybrid warfare tools at its disposal in Europe: election meddling and strategic corruption aimed at political parties and media, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and disinformation, economic coercion, and targeted assassinations using difficult-to-detect toxic agents, to name a few. Europe has been slow to react, with EU member states failing to anticipate the war in Ukraine even after the Kremlin started preparations for its final act by deliberately reducing gas storage levels in Germany in the autumn of 2021. Some EU and NATO member states and many political party leaders across the continent remain in denial, even as the war approaches a full year of destruction. NATO and European institutions have begun to prepare policy and operational responses to these emerging hybrid threats, but implementation remains slow and uneven.” Maddox also recently released an infographic-“Russia’s Active Measures: Recent CBRN-enabled Influence Operations” that outlines Russia’s efforts across several areas, including cyber.

“An Update on Eukaryotic Viruses Revived from Ancient Permafrost”

Two words; “zombie viruses”-that is how researchers have described thirteen viruses collected from permafrost in Siberia in a recent preprint. “One quarter of the Northern hemisphere is underlain by permanently frozen ground, referred to as permafrost. Due to climate warming, irreversibly thawing permafrost is releasing organic matter frozen for up to a million years, most of which decomposes into carbon dioxide and methane, further enhancing the greenhouse effect. Part of this organic matter also consists of revived cellular microbes (prokaryotes, unicellular eukaryotes) as well as viruses that remained dormant since prehistorical times. While the literature abounds on descriptions of the rich and diverse prokaryotic microbiomes found in permafrost, no additional report about “live” viruses have been published since the two original studies describing pithovirus (in 2014) and mollivirus (in 2015). This wrongly suggests that such occurrences are rare and that “zombie viruses” are not a public health threat. To restore an appreciation closer to reality, we report the preliminary characterizations of 13 new viruses isolated from 7 different ancient Siberian permafrost samples, 1 from the Lena river and 1 from Kamchatka cryosol. As expected from the host specificity imposed by our protocol, these viruses belong to 5 different clades infecting Acanthamoeba spp. but not previously revived from permafrost: pandoravirus, cedratvirus, megavirus, and pacmanvirus, in addition to a new pithovirus strain.”

What We’re Watching 🍿

We’re changing it up this week with INTERPOL’s new a̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ m̶o̶v̶i̶e̶ awareness video about the risks of weaponizable chemicals-“The Watchmaker”. “The Watchmaker, is an INTERPOL-produced awareness video highlighting the need for multi-agency cooperation to share knowledge and identify solutions to mitigate risks posed by weaponizable chemicals. It is part of a broader set of activities entitled, Project Crimp, which provides a platform for multi-agency cooperation between law enforcement, government, academia and the chemical industry to share knowledge, experience and share best practice.”

Maximum Containment Labs and Biorisk Management

From the Global Biolabs Initiative: “This webinar will re-launch GlobalBioLabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global maximum containment labs and biorisk management policies, and introduce new data and analysis. Speakers: Dr Filippa Lentzos, King’s College London and Dr Gregory D Koblenz, George Mason University.” This webinar will take place on December 9 at 8 am ET. Register here.

Applying Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Research and Development to Future Epidemics

Join the National Academies for this workshop taking place in a hybrid format December 7-8. “The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed innovative practices across many sectors to accelerate the development and use of new tools and technologies in response to an emerging infectious disease outbreak. This public workshop will examine lessons learned in creating an environment that strengthens this progress in partnerships, communication channels, and coordination processes to support the rapid development and implementation of new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostic tests for future outbreak preparedness. A specific focus will be placed on broadening stakeholder partnerships early and throughout the outbreak preparedness and response process.” Learn more and register here.

Canadian Biosafety Standard, Third Edition Webinar

“The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are pleased to announce the publication of the Canadian Biosafety Standard, third edition (CBS3). The CBS3 outlines the physical containment, operational practice, and performance and verification testing requirements for facilities where regulated materials are handled or stored. The CBS has been revised to clarify the biosafety and biosecurity intent of all requirements, be risk-, evidence- and performance-based, and be non-prescriptive and technology-neutral. The CBS3 comes into full effect on April 1, 2023. The Public Health Agency of Canada will be hosting a two-part webinar series dedicated to the CBS3. The first webinar will be held on December 7th, 2022, and will provide an overview of key changes in the CBS3 from the previous edition, project milestones, and highlights from the public consultation.” The webinar will be held at 1 pm ET. Register here. Registration is limited for this event, so move quickly if you are interested in attending.

ICYMI- Impacts of Infectious Diseases on the Military: Lessons Learned

From the Homeland Defense and Security Information Analysis Center: “This moderated panel discussion will engage three subject matter experts who have served at the forefront of public health operations in both the military and civilian sectors. Panelists will discuss lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and other health crises, recommended responses for future infectious disease threats, and near- and long-term mitigation steps which the military can employ to combat infectious disease threats. Threats analyzed will include natural and manmade releases of biological threats.” Watch the webinar here.

BIO-ISAC Call for Nominations for Genomic Security and Hardware/Software Security Working Groups

“To support the execution of the Bioeconomy Executive Order, BIO-ISAC has issued a Call for Nominations for its 2023 working groups focused on Genomic Security and Hardware/Software Security.”

“Each workgroup is expected to meet for at least two hours a month for the initial four months and agree to future meetings as required. Consensus building around organization recommendations and regulatory responses expected with likely on-the-record presentation of findings from the working groups. No working group may have more than two representatives from a single firm or entity.  BIO-ISAC membership is required to serve as chair.

The Pandora Report Wants to Hear from Biodefense Program Alumni!

Calling all graduates of the Biodefense Program-do you have any news to share from this year? We want to hear from you! The Pandora Report will be creating a year-in-review for our late December issue, and we want to include updates from current students and alumni alike. It can be anything from promotions, publications, new jobs, etc. that you would like to share. Share your updates with us at biodefense@gmu.edu before December 23 to be featured in the year-in-review and anytime you want to stay in touch.

Introducing the Weekly Pandora Report Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! At the end of each weekly issue, there will now be a trivia question included. The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). Because this is the first round, we will start off easy-Which country most recently became a State Party to the Biological Weapons Convention?

Pandora Report: 11.18.2022

Well Pandora Report readers, it’s that time of the year where we load our US audience up with plenty to bring up at the Thanksgiving table. 🦃 This week we start on a positive note with updates about what some of our students have been up to. We then dive into discussion of how avian influenza is likely to affect our US readers this Thanksgiving, the Biden administration’s newest National Security Memorandum on food and agriculture security, and a new study on Hendra virus that helps confirm what we already knew-man-made climate change is making infectious disease threats worse. We also cover a number of new publications, including several discussing the upcoming Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference.

Biodefense Program Students Take Atlanta and Milwaukee

When we aren’t buried in the books, enjoying our incredibly unique curriculum and world class faculty, or getting inside looks at exclusive facilities, we do get to spread our wings at professional conferences, trainings, and other trips all over the world.

Just recently, Biodefense MS Student Sophia Hirshfield traveled to Atlanta to attend the National Association of County and City Health Officials 2022 Preparedness Summit. There she learned from experts about what it takes to make us safe at the local level. As she wisely summarizes it, “We cannot say we are prepared for an emergency unless even the most vulnerable among us have preparedness resources available to them.”

Last month, Biodefense PhD Student Omar Mukhlis went to Milwaukee to attend the 65th Annual Biosafety and Biosecurity Conference offered by the American Biological Safety Association. When he wasn’t chowing down on cheese curds, he attended panels on biorisk management, public health’s intersection with law enforcement, and this year’s Eagleson Lecture delivered by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Dr. Richard Marconi-“The Growing Threat of Lyme Disease: Where Do We Stand?”

You can read about Sophia’s trip here and Omar’s here.

It’s Giving…One Health

The seventh annual One Health Day may have already come and gone this month, but there is still plenty to talk about. In case you don’t know, One Health is an approach that recognizes the synergy between human, animal, and environmental health and, as a result, emphasizes collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to addressing health issues. It certainly isn’t a new concept but, as we’ll discuss below, it is one that is becoming increasingly important in today’s world.

Nothing to Gobble At…Turkey is ≈73% More Expensive This Year

Right now, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the average price per pound for whole turkeys is $1.99. This time last year, it averaged about $1.15, meaning the US is experiencing a 73% increase in price ahead of turkey day. However, this isn’t just a symptom of the general inflation we are experiencing. Remember the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza we discussed earlier this year?

While avian influenza normally spreads in the colder months, the world saw a number of outbreaks earlier this year and late last year. This continued into the summer months, when commercial farmers typically are preparing for the demanding holiday season. As of November 17, more than 50 million birds in 46 states from commercial and backyard flocks have either died from bird flu or have been culled after exposure to infected birds since early 2022. 47 states have detected avian influenza in about 3,700 wild birds this year as well. While there has only been one reported human case in the US this year, people all over have felt the effects as prices for staples like eggs skyrocketed. The holidays will be no exception with price increases and large numbers of flocks impacted across Europe too.

However, if you (correctly) prioritize sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving dinner, you’re in luck. The price of sweet potatoes have gone up just about 3¢ a pound, while 12 oz. of cranberries went up about 1% (or 2¢) to $2.24, making them some of the most minimally affected Thanksgiving staples.

President Biden Signs NSM-16 on Strengthening the Security and Resilience of United States Food and Agriculture

This week the Biden administration released National Security Memorandum-16 (NSM-16) which aims to strengthen the resilience of US food and agriculture. This memo includes portions dedicated to threats posed by climate change and cybersecurity in response to recent events like a June 2021 ransomware attack that halted operations at one of the world’s largest meat suppliers’ North American base, the spread of HPAI this year and its impacts on poultry supply and safety, and the threats to global food security and grain supply caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. NSM-16 provides guidance to help identify and assess threats of greatest consequence, strengthen partnerships and enhance workforce resilience, coordinate interagency efforts more effectively, and enhance preparedness and response capabilities. Among its priorities are “Redefining the way that chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats are defined, in relation to the food and agriculture sector specifically,” and “Enhancing threat and risk assessments, disseminating needed information with relevant Federal, State, local, Tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments and private sector partners.”

Deforestation is Driving the World Batty

A bat carrying a virus loses its habitat and, as a result, moves away towards other animals. In the process, it sheds viral particles in its feces and saliva, eventually spreading the virus on to another animal that can, in turn, spread it to human populations. Those infected typically will first experience fever, cough, sore throat, headache, and malaise. Later, they can develop meningitis or encephalitis, bringing on worsening headaches and fever, drowsiness, and even convulsions and coma. Up to 70% of people infected with the virus die, while about 80% of infected members of the intermediate species die. No, it’s not the ending of Contagion. It’s Hendra virus (HeV), a very real member of the same genus (Henipavirus) as Nipah virus, the also very real virus that inspired the film’s fictional virus, MEV-1. While it’s not quite time for EIS officer Kate Winslet to valiantly try to save us all just yet, a new study offered by Nature as an accelerated article preview indicates we might be a little closer to that point than we would like to think.

It started in 1994 in Queensland, Australia. In Hendra, a suburb of Brisbane, a pregnant mare became sick and died two days after arriving from a paddock somewhere else in Brisbane. Eleven days later, 17 more horses in the large racing stable also became ill. Fourteen of those 17 were euthanized. Between five and six days after the mare’s death, a stable-hand and a trainer, both of whom had contact with the mare’s mucous secretions, developed flu-like illnesses. The hand recovered, but the trainer developed pneumonitis and arterial thrombosis before going into respiratory and renal failure and dying from cardiac arrest seven days after hospital admission. As explained in the Medical Journal of Australia, “A morbillivirus cultured from his kidney was identical to one isolated from the lungs of five affected horses. The two affected humans and eight other horses were seropositive for the infection, which was reproduced in healthy horses following challenge by spleen/lung homogenates from infected horses. There was no serological evidence of infection in 157 humans who had had contact with the stables or the sick horses or humans.” That was how HeV made its first appearance, and it hasn’t become any less terrifying since.

Since then, HeV disease has killed over 100 horses, though just seven humans are known to have been infected, all through close contact during care or necropsy of sick or deceased horses. There has been no documentation of human-to-human transmission. The natural host has been identified as fruit bats of the Pteropodidae Family, Pteropus genus, also commonly known as flying foxes. To date, serologic evidence for HeV infection has been found in all four species of flying foxes in Australia, but spillover to horses has been limited to coastal and forested regions in Queensland and New South Wales. Furthermore, late last year, a study identified a novel HeV variant that was discovered in Australian flying foxes after a heat stress mortality event in 2013. This variant was compared to published HeV genomes and it was 84% similar. As it belongs to the HeV species but is part of a distinct lineage, it was designated HeV genotype 2 (HeV-g2). Last October, an equine case of HeV-g2 was detected near Newcastle, NSW outside of the winter season typical for HeV and further south than any previous equine detection, highlighting the expanded geographical area at risk for spillover. Updated diagnostic tests are now available in Australian states and territories to be able to test for all known HeV variants.

There is a registered subunit vaccine available for horses (Equivac), though there is no vaccine for humans. However, as a survey in PLoS One revealed, 43% of horse owners in Queensland have not vaccinated their horses, with that number rising as high as 70% in some parts of the state. The Atlantic spoke with some of these owners, with one telling them “I don’t believe in injecting chemicals into horses, especially if it’s not tested,” Carloss said, referring to the fact that regulators, citing the danger posed by an outbreak, initially allowed the vaccine to be sold under a provisional license. “More people get hit by cars or shark attacks.” This has caused tension with equine veterinarians and broader concerns about low vaccination rates increasing the risk of spread to humans who work closely with unvaccinated animals. This is especially worrisome given recent findings that indicate flying foxes are increasingly crossing paths with horses and humans as they lose their natural habitats.

Source: CDC Public Health Image Library

The New York Times explains that the new Nature study, “…based on 25 years of data from Australia, suggests that environmental changes have been driving these spillovers by radically altering the ecology of black flying foxes. Deforestation, coupled with climate-linked food shortages, has driven the bats into human-dominated habitats like farms, where food is readily available but may be of poorer quality…” Furthermore, a second study published in Ecology Letters suggests that flying foxes may demonstrate more pronounced viral excretion as a result of recent food shortages, meaning they are shedding more virus when they arrive at human-dominated habitats in search of food.

Worse yet-they aren’t leaving like they used to once the seasons change. The Nature article notes that, in the past, the bats would normally break up into smaller groups to seek out food sources like urban gardens and agricultural areas during winters or events like El Niño that limit their supply. Typically, these behavioral changes would last only for those periods of acute food stress, and then the bats would return to nomadism and nectivory once their food sources were available. Beginning in about 2003, however, flying foxes often still break off into smaller groups during periods of food shortages, but they now permanently remain in their new habitats near farms and cities instead of returning to nomadism in the forests. The authors suspect this is because of rapid deforestation, with about 1/3 of the bats’ winter foraging habitat having been lost between 1996 and 2018. Between 2003 and 2020, the number of flying fox roosts in the sampled area tripled, the average size of groups shrunk, roosts were increasingly close to one another, and, as a result, the bats foraged in smaller areas.

The authors think the animals may no longer find benefit in trying to maintain their nomadic lives as deforestation has made it more convenient to rely on the low-quality food they can get near farms and cities, rather than expending much more energy trying to search for dwindling supplies of the food they once relied on. This means that these bats are shedding more virus than normal, staying in human-dominated areas, and living in closer proximity to horses, all of which increases the likelihood of HeV transmission. It’s important to note too, as Dr. Cara Brook of the University of Chicago highlighted, that this is not a dynamic unique to Australia. Wild bat populations are reservoirs for different diseases all over the world in many different ecosystems that are also at serious threat. The Pteropus genus also includes the known reservoir for Nipah virus, which first emerged in Malaysia in 1998, devastating the local pig industry and causing fatal disease in humans. In the last few decades, their habitats in Southeast Asia have been reduced by deforestation caused by industrial plantation. In fact, between 1990 and 2010, Malaysia lost nearly 9% of its forest cover, in large part due to logging and clearing for the palm oil industry.

In the end, human, animal, and environmental health are inextricably linked. This new study does a great job of showing change over time and the role of climate change in changing animal behaviors and worsening infectious disease threats. However, it is important to not just absorb this information, but to consider the broad ramifications of these findings across all fields.

What Have We Learned from COVID-19? Apparently Not Much

This week has had a lot of more of the same old frustrating updates and conclusions in terms of COVID-19 and our preparedness for future global health threats. The WHO’s Global Vaccine Market Report for 2022 found that, “Despite progress in recent decades, global market vaccine dynamics are not fully conducive to the development, supply and access for vital vaccines for public health,” limited profit potential continues to hamper investment in vaccines labeled priorities, and (you guessed it) “Lower-income countries have struggled to access critical vaccines – such as against COVID-19 in 2021 and cervical cancer vaccine – that are in-demand by wealthier countries.” While countries like the US have had the luxury to hold onto excess vaccine doses throughout the pandemic, others have gone without. However, as most are keenly aware, this has been far from indicative of a stable situation in the US health system.

Kaiser Health News reported this week that the roughly 4,000 epidemiologists, communication specialists, and public health nurses hired by the CDC Foundation to augment local and state health departments nationally will lose their jobs as the foundation’s $289 million in COVID-19 relief funding runs dry. Pierce Nelson, a spokesperson for CDC Foundation (an independent non-profit that supports CDC), indicated that no more than 800 of these 4,000 hires would remain in their positions. This means many local and state health departments are facing serious staffing shortages as we face a potential winter surge in COVID-19 cases, a concerning start to flu season coupled with lagging vaccination rates, exploding STI rates, and growing calls for a health emergency declaration with more than 3/4 of US pediatric hospital beds occupied in large part because of this year’s explosion of RSV cases.

While the administration has largely moved on from treating COVID-19 like an active emergency, leaving a slim chance of 4,000 professionals hired using COVID-19 emergency funds keeping their jobs, this points to a much large problem-public health is chronically underfunded in the United States. Those 4,000 are dwarfed by the at least 80,000 new public health employees estimated to be required nationally to allow state and local department to consistently offer a minimal level of services. In 2020, just 28% of local health departments had an epidemiologist or statistician on staff. Furthermore, public health workers left the field in large numbers during the pandemic, citing burnout and public abuse related to COVID-19 rules and economic downturn. Though $3 billion is expected to come to state and local departments this month to help support building a public health workforce, another one-off lump sum is not enough, especially after thousands like those hired by CDC Foundation will have already had to move on with their lives.

Today, at least 1,072,285 people in the US have lost their lives to COVID-19, with 555 of those reported yesterday alone. COVID-19 is the third leading cause of death in the US, behind two noncommunicable diseases-heart disease and cancer. Even if it were true that COVID-19 is no longer a major part of our lives, the fact still remains that these numbers are as high as they are because of how poorly the US responded to the pandemic. This boom and bust funding cycle clearly does not work for public health. Consistent, yearly, secure funding is needed to make sure we have a competent, stable public health workforce that is well-supplied and able to handle whatever we have to deal with next. Dr. Katie Schenk, who served as a Senior Epidemiologist on CDC Foundation COVID-19 emergency fund contracts at the Illinois and District of Columbia Health Departments, was quoted by KHN on this subject, saying “How do you explain that there is no funding for employment in our field when there is clearly so much work to be done?” she asked. “It’s to the detriment of the public health system, which is shedding staff like there’s no tomorrow.”

Tossing a bucket of water towards the neglected, dry, wooden house that is already engulfed in flames is never going to work. Pre-COVID-19, just 3% of healthcare expenditures in the United States were for public health. In 2019, US the National Health Expenditure sat at $3.8 trillion, or $11,582 per capita, accounting for 17.7% of GDP. That number grew nearly 10% in 2020 to $4.1 trillion, or $12,530 per person, accounting for 19.7% of GDP. Of course, in the middle of surging hospital occupation and the rush to find a vaccine, the US spent a lot on health care and related activities like research and insurance. And, to be fair, public health funding accounted for 5.4% of NHE in 2020, but it was in the middle of a pandemic.

Furthermore, in August, Brookings estimated that around 16 million working-age Americans have long COVID. In a longitudinal survey conducted by the US Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 24.1% of people who contracted COVID-19 experienced symptoms for three months or longer. At that point, 70% of Americans had contracted COVID-19, meaning if that 24.1% holds roughly true in the broader population, about 34 million working-age Americans had long COVID at some point. As many as 4 million workers are likely out of work because of long COVID too, according to Brookings. The annual cost of those lost wages is estimated to be between $170 and $230 billion annually and it is likely to rise in absence of substantial policy changes like expanded sick leave, improved employer accommodations, and wider access to disability insurance in addition to improved prevention. To be sure, this all costs a lot of money. However, it would not have cost nearly as much if we had invested more in things like public health way before COVID-19 even emerged.

This highlights two very important points: 1) Americans spend much more than comparable countries on healthcare, but they have poorer outcomes, and 2) much like it is cheaper to invest in preventative care and social services that improve quality of life rather than pay for medical care down the line when someone is seriously sick, it is cheaper to invest in public health way before a crisis comes. In fact, Academy Health found in 2018 that “Every $1 invested in public health yields improved health outcomes equivalent to as much as $88 in expenditures saved by county public health departments.” One study found that other OECD country spent on average about $2 on social services for every $1 of health care spending, compared to the United States 55¢. The US spends nearly twice as much as the average OECD country on health care as a share of the economy, yet it has a lower life expectancy than comparable high-income countries like Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The US also has among the highest chronic disease burden in the OECD, and its obesity rate is two times higher than the OECD average. Finally, according to the Commonwealth Fund, the US has the highest rate of avoidable mortality among its peers because Americans do not receive timely, high-quality care. All this points not only to problems in efficiency and delivery in healthcare, but also to major risk factors that make the US much more vulnerable to health security threats.

Tackling healthcare spending, insurance issues, and broadening access to care are objectively difficult to accomplish in the current US political environment. Public health has similarly suffered from partisan politics over the course of the pandemic, from the national level all the way to rural county commissions. However, at the end of the day, this is national security at stake. The US is suffering major economic hardships because of the impacts of COVID-19, including the loss of millions from the workforce on top of global inflation. Lack of equitable access to quality, timely care, lack of funding for community and state-level public health, and an overall reactionary system create a population that is bogged down by high chronic disease burden and slim options for healthcare. That population by definition is not secure. Patchwork and crisis-dependent funding is not cutting it and if we do not do something about it now, we will be in a similar or much worse situation not long from now when the next global health crisis strikes.

“A Plan B to Strengthen Biosafety and Biosecurity”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz (Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program) and King’s College London’s Dr. Filippa Lentzos recently published this piece in CFR’s Think Global Health. In it they discuss what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine likely means for the upcoming BWC RevCon, challenges posed by spoiler states in international negotiations, and the potential for “minilateralism”-“a collective action strategy that brings together the smallest number of countries that can have the greatest impact on an issue”-to help overcome these challenges. They conclude, “Given these stakes, the geopolitical constraints on multilateralism, and Russia’s abuse of the BWC, a concerted effort to harness minilateral strategies offers the best chance to advance collective action on ensuring that life sciences research globally is conducted safely, securely, and responsibly. This effort can begin by fostering the widespread adoption and implementation of the ISO laboratory biorisk management standard, but minilateralism has the potential to take cooperation well beyond this first step too.”

CBWNet Working Papers

CBWNet recently released multiple working papers ahead of the BWC RevCon, including “International Biosecurity Governance Evolution within the Biological Weapons Convention” and “The Legal Effect of the BWC Review Conferences”. These papers offer great background ahead of RevCon on the evolution of the BWC, recent developments like the 2015 Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines, and the international legal consequences of review conference agreements versus actual changes to the BWC itself.

“Russia (Again) Peddles Its Debunked US-Ukrainian Bioweapons Claims at the United Nations”

While on the topic of the drama we have endured in the lead up to RevCon this year, we (again) could not skip out on more of Russia’s masterful wasting of everyone’s time with its nonsense biological weapons claims. This time Dr. Lentzos and Jezz Littlewood tackle Russia’s fourth time taking these claims to the UN Security Council this year for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In it their piece, they discuss state abstentions on the vote, highlighting that eight of the 10 non-permanent members of the UNSC made it clear that they abstained from voting because they wanted to make it clear they support the right of any state to invoke Article VI, which may have been muddied if they had outright rejected Russia’s claims that they argue have no merit. They also discuss the absurdity of going to the UNSC with an Article VI complaints after the BWC consultative meeting previously failed to get Russia more support. In fact, they explain, “Of the 15 Security Council members Russia would be making its complaint to, six had rejected Russia’s allegations at the consultative meeting (Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, United Kingdom, and the United States), while six others had been silent (Ghana, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates) or had supported the process of the consultative meeting but without supporting Russia’s specific claims (Brazil, India, and Mexico). Only China supported the claims in September. (Gabon was absent from the September meeting.)”

“Russia’s Apoplexy Over Biological Research – Implications for the BTWC and Its Articles V and VI”

Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders also took a crack at this on his site, The Trench, offering a detailed explanation of Russia’s claims, their recent moves under Articles V and VI of the BWC, and what issues this process has illuminated ahead of RevCon. In particular he notes that 1) “In both instances [when Article V was invoked], the FCM did not resolve the controversies for lack of consensus among the participating BTWC state parties.” 2) The BWC does not outline a clear procedure to trigger Article VI. Because Russia simultaneously filed a UNSC complaint and used its status as a permanent UNSC member to submit a draft resolution that would form an investigative commission, proposals aimed at strengthening Article VI at RevCon may have to address the question of if this permissible. They would also need to “…determine whether a request to act on a concurrent draft resolution amounts to the request to have the complaint considered by the UNSC as explicitly stipulated in Article VI,” and 3) Russia resubmitted the same documentation in its Article VI complaint that UNODA had questioned four times before the UNSC, and that the FCM previously did not conclude demonstrated there was a violation of the BTWC. Zanders concludes, “The question, therefore, arises whether Russia did not brutalise Article VI by submitting documents in evidence that the international community had already repeatedly judged as wanting.”

“Delay, Detect, Defend: Preparing for a Future in Which Thousands Can Release New Pandemics”

This new paper from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy written by MIT’s Dr. Kevin Esvelt discusses information hazards in pandemic research. Esvelt writes, “The world is demonstrably vulnerable to the introduction of a single pandemic virus with a comparatively low case fatality rate. The deliberate and simultaneous release of many pandemic viruses across travel hubs could threaten the stability of civilisation. Current trends suggest that within a decade, tens of thousands of skilled individuals will be able to access the
information required for them to single-handedly cause new pandemics. Safeguarding civilisation from the catastrophic misuse of biotechnology requires delaying the development and misuse of pandemic-class agents while building systems capable of reliably detecting threats and preventing nearly all infections.” You can also find the accompanying article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

“Toward a Post-Pandemic World: Lessons from COVID-19 for Now and the Future”

From the National Academies: “To take stock of lessons learned from COVID-19 around the world and in the United States, the Forum on Microbial Threats held two virtual workshops during 2021. The first workshop focused on what it means to frame the response to COVID-19 through a “syndemic” approach, and what the implications would be for global recovery. The second workshop focused more broadly on key lessons and emerging data from ongoing pandemic response efforts that can be incorporated into current health systems to improve resilience and preparedness for future outbreaks.”

“This workshop explored the long-term effects of COVID-19 on health equity, including considerations for mental health and social determinants of health. It also addressed uncertainties during a pandemic, such as trust, communication, and engagement and explored approaches to systematize recovery efforts to improve the ongoing responses and prepare for the next pandemic. Experts discussed possibilities for a post-pandemic world and a response strategy for stakeholders that ensures sustained community partnerships and prioritization of health equity. This Proceedings of a Workshop summarizes the presentations and discussions from the second workshop.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

“The Retort” – A History of Chemical and Biological Disarmament

The 9th Review Conference for the Biological Weapons Convention is swiftly approaching and, well, there’s a lot to know about it beforehand. Check out this episode of Dr. Brett Edward’s podcast for a concise rundown on CBW disarmament whether you need a soothing refresher or a 101 style introduction.

This Podcast Will Kill You Episode 109, Chikungunya: Not Dengue (Or Is It?)

Has it been awhile since you got really freaked out by an arbovirus? Don’t worry-there’s a new episode of TPWKY out to fix that for you! From the creators: “Somehow it’s taken us until the penultimate episode to cover this season’s first mosquito-borne virus. But we assure you, this episode is well-worth the wait. Although Chikungunya virus is often lumped in with dengue or Zika, the unique characteristics that distinguish Chikungunya virus from these other arboviruses are just as important to note as the similarities among them. In this episode, we explore these differences and similarities in the biology of Chikungunya virus before reassessing what we thought we knew about the history of this disease, a history that is presently under revision. Finally, we wrap up the episode as we always do, by taking stock of where we stand with Chikungunya virus today. Tune in for a good deal of dengue compare/contrast, a whodunnit (or whichdiseaseisit) in the history of these two diseases, and a frustrating attempt to gather present-day case numbers.”

Book Launch- Tech Wars: Transforming U.S. Technology Development

Dr. Dan Gerstein, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and current Schar School adjunct professor, is launching his latest book, Tech Wars, at an event hosted in-person by American University’s School of International Service on November 29, at 5:30 pm EST. “This book explores the evolution of the current U.S. research and development enterprise, asks whether this organization remains appropriate to the challenges we face today, and proposes strategies for better preparing for the global technology race shaping our future.” Learn more and register here.

Countering the Misuse of CBRN Materials and Related Information

“On 23 November 2022 (Wednesday) at 10:30 am the Center for the Study of Democracy is organizing an international conference on Countering the misuse of CBRN materials and related information. This event aims to provide an opportunity to consider different approaches to promote the effective management of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security risks.” Learn more and register here.

Other Ways to Connect with the Pandora Report

While we don’t have any zingers lingering in our Twitter drafts to release just in case we are at the end of the line, we do have a couple other places you can connect with us if you would like. If you aren’t already, you can subscribe to our newsletter here and get the weekly report straight to your inbox. You can also join our LinkedIn group-Pandemics, Bioterrorism and Global Health Security-and find us on Instagram @thepandorareport. As always, everything we post is available at https://pandorareport.org/!