Pandora Report: 11.20.2020

The Pandora Report wishes everyone an early (and healthy) Happy Thanksgiving! We will be taking a break to enjoy a virtual holiday with our families, but will return to your inbox in December! In case your missed it, a recording and the presentation slides from the event on current challenges to the CWC are available on our website. If you need some holiday fun, in a new video, Lloyd Davies, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, rates how realistic the bomb disposal scenes are in popular movies and TV shows.

Thanksgiving in COVID-19

Despite the pandemic fatigue most of us are likely suffering, we need to remain vigilant and compliant with the COVID-19 measures in order to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and all the others around us. Now that we are entering into the winter season and seeking refuge from the cold by congregating indoors, we are also seeing terrible surges in COVID-19 cases. Though we all miss our friends and family after these many months of lockdowns, distance, and quarantines, holiday gatherings pose risks for further escalating our case numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided recommendations for a safe and healthy Thanksgiving in COVID-19. Of course, staying home and enjoying a virtual Thanksgiving with those outside your household is the best way to limit exposure to and spread of COVID-19.

Travel may increase your chance of contracting and transmitting COVID-19, so staying home is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones this year. If you decide to travel, make sure that you are following social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines while doing so. Also, whether you will be traveling for Thanksgiving or not, make sure to get your seasonal flu shot ASAP. This year, perhaps more than ever, it is critical that we keep ourselves and those around us as healthy as possible. For those attending an in-person Thanksgiving event, please protect yourself (and your fellow feasters) by wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from those who do not live with you, and washing your hands frequently.

Event Materials – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program sponsored an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. This week, a distinguished panel of international experts joined in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event was moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Watch a recording of this event here.

The slide decks from our panelists are available here.

COVID-19 Update

Over the last week, about 1 million more cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States. The running total for the US is over 11,720,300 cases and 252,500 deaths. Globally, cases exceed 57 million and deaths exceed 1,363,000. At present, there are two leading vaccine candidates under development in the United States. One is an mRNA-based vaccine developed and produced by Pfizer – co-developed with BioNTech in Germany – and trial findings have shown over 90% efficacy in COVID-19 prevention. Based on the trial data, it is expected that the vaccine will be administered as a two-series with three weeks between the injections. Unfortunately, the serum will likely require cold storage at a temperature of -81o Celsius, a critical constraint that could limit widespread availability and accessibility in many countries. The other candidate is Moderna’s RNA-based vaccine, which is showing over 94% efficacy in preventing COVID-19.  

Federal Efforts Accelerate Vaccine and Therapeutic Development, but More Transparency Needed on Emergency Use Authorizations

Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD), is the US government’s initiative to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. Under normal conditions, the vaccine development process takes 10 years or longer, but OWS intends to accelerate that process by completing steps simultaneously. As of 15 October, OWS announced financial support for the development or manufacturing of six COVID-19 vaccine candidates that total more than $10 billion in obligations. It has also revealed financial support for the development of therapeutics, including a $450 million award for the manufacture of a monoclonal antibody treatment (a treatment that uses laboratory-made antibodies, which also may be able to serve as a prevention option). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued four emergency use authorizations (EUAs), which temporarily allow the use of unapproved therapeutics as another method of speeding up access to medical products. The FDA’s rationale for issuing EUAs has not always been clear; therefore, to help ensure public trust, GAO recommends the FDA improve the communication of findings from its safety and effectiveness reviews. GAO also recommends that the FDA “identify ways to uniformly disclose to the public the information from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines.” HHS neither agree nor disagrees with this recommendation, but has stated that it shares GAO’s goal of transparency and would explore ways to improve it.

Schar School Power Lunch Recap: Facing the Challenges of Healthcare

The Schar School of Government and Policy hosts a weekly Power Lunch convening political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss crucial topics affecting the next four years of US public policy. Last week’s lunch featured Dr. Saskia Popescu, assistant professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program; Sarah Kliff, an investigative reporter focused on healthcare for the New York Times; and Tom Daschle, former US Senator (D-SD) and Senate Majority Leader. The discussion focused on the challenges in healthcare created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Justin Gest, the moderator, shared his takeaway:

“Infecting and killing millions, COVID-19 has tested the limits of science, medicine, and healthcare systems in every corner of the globe. Here in the United States, there are debates over the future of the Affordable Care Act and the role of government in the provision of healthcare…Just yesterday, the US recorded more than 145,000 new COVID-19 cases to set a new record-high. In some areas of the country the number of hospitalizations is already pushing hospital staff to the brink.”

Next week’s Power Lunch will focus on economic policy as America looks to the future. See the list of upcoming topics and register here.

Special Forces Bomb Disposal Expert Rates 10 Bomb Disposal Scenes in Movies and TV

Lloyd Davies, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, rates how realistic the bomb-disposal scenes are in popular movies and TV shows. Davies assesses the land mines in the TV show “SEAL Team” (2018) and other improvised explosive devices in “The Hurt Locker” (2008), “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995), and “Bodyguard” (2018). He describes the “red wire, blue wire” movie device from “Juggernaut” (1974) and “Blown Away” (1994). Davies explains that as an EOD operator, you do not “swap between decisions or not do something that you said you were gonna do.” A bomb contains contain at least seven components, which includes a power source, the main explosives, and initiator switches. He also states that, unlike in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018), an explosive would not have two timers counting down at the same time.

SARS-CoV-2 Origins

The World Health Organization (WHO) debuted its plan to investigate the origins of the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2. The investigation will start in Wuhan, the city in China where the novel coronavirus was first detected and identified, and expand across China and the globe. Although tracing the trajectory of the virus is important for preventing future spillovers, scientists say the WHO team is charged with a daunting task. Most researchers think the virus originated in bats, but how it made the jump to infect humans is unknown. Discovering the origins of SARS-CoV-2 could take years, and the search must navigate the delicate political situation between the United States and China. Martin Beer, a virologist at the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health in Germany, recommends that the investigation prioritize carnivorous mammals farmed for fur, such as raccoon dogs and civets, which played a role in the SARS outbreak.  A spokesperson for the WHO assures that the search will be guided by science, and “will be open-minded, iterative, not excluding any hypothesis that could contribute to generating evidence and narrowing the focus of research.” Dr. David Relman supports a “deliberative process for investigating the origins of this pandemic.” Relman emphasizes that such an investigation must be “representative of all relevant disciplines, expertise, and stakeholders; must achieve political neutrality, scientific balance, and access to all relevant information and samples; and must operate with transparency and independent oversight.” If the effort lacks these features, its credibility, trustworthiness, and efficacy will be in question.

Diagnostics for Biodefense: Flying Blind with No Plan to Land

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a report, Diagnostics for Biodefense: Flying Blind with No Plan to Land, which highlights the US’s “limited capacity for diagnostic testing and inability to conduct the necessary research to develop these tests quickly.” The report calls on the US government to ensure the ability to rapidly develop point-of-care and point-of-need diagnostic tests for novel, emerging, and reemerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The Commission recommends that the Executive Branch purchase viable diagnostics, identify and articulate diagnostic research and development requirements, and leverage defense research and expertise. The Commission recommends that the Legislative Branch require a national plan for COVID-19 testing, increase reimburse for point-of-care and point-of-need tests, increase testing for diseases likely to produce widespread infections, provide multi-year funding for research and development in diagnostics, and leverage defense research and expertise. Read the full report here.

Journal Highlights Groundbreaking S&T Research on Chlorine Spread

Over the last decade, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and other US and international partners from across government, industry, and academia have collaborated on Project Jack Rabbit. Project Jack Rabbit is a field and laboratory research program studying toxic inhalation hazards of industrial chemicals, such as ammonia and chlorine. In 2015 and 2016, DHS S&T led the Jack Rabbit II project, which involved several large-scale chlorine release experiments at the US Army Dugway Proving Ground. Nine chlorine release trials were successfully performed, and the research from Jack Rabbit II is in high demand worldwide. In fact, the prestigious peer-reviewed Journal of Atmospheric Environment is featuring this work in a special edition. The special issue will include 18 articles, with two co-authored by the Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC). The remaining 16 articles were submitted by subject matter experts and present summary test results used for model inter-comparisons, results from comparisons of different dispersion models, and results of related research regarding flow fields around obstructions and chemical reactions with surface materials. According to Dr. Shannon Fox, Jack Rabbit II principle investigator and director of CSAC, “Jack Rabbit III will expand on previous work and build security, safety and resilience in the chemical supply chain through experimentation over the next five years.”

Coronavirus: Germany Hails Couch Potatoes in New Videos

Our couch was the frontline and our patience was our weapon.” The German government is encouraging staying home through videos offering humorous praise to the nation’s couch potatoes. In the first video, “#specialheroes – Together against corona,” an elderly man looks back on the winter of 2020. He says:

“The fate of this country lay in our hands. So, we mustered all our courage and did what was expected of us, the only right thing. We did nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Watch the German government’s latest coronavirus advert with subtitles in English here.

WWDFD?

Kaiser Health News’ (KHN) latest podcast episode from “What the Health?”  asks what would Dr. Fauci do? Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and has helped guide the US through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, various flu epidemics, as well as outbreaks of SARS, Ebola and Zika. Now, amidst a worsening pandemic, Fauci is stuck between the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration. Fauci has faced criticism from Trump and his supporters for not aligning with the outgoing president’s wishes on the pandemic, and with the delayed transition due to Biden not yet being recognized as president-elect, Fauci cannot work with Biden’s team. In a recent interview with KHN, Fauci answers how Americans might expect to live in the next six to nine months. He recommends a universal wearing of masks and a national surveillance system that takes in a large number of tests. Fauci thinks that the country is “going to have some degree of public health measures together with the vaccine for a considerable period of time.”

Pandora Report: 11.6.2020

Belated Happy One Health Day! The US officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on 4 November. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student and Assistant Editor for The Pandora Report, provides an analysis about vehicle ramming attacks (VRAs) by terrorists. The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a virtual event, “The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)” on 17 November.

Driven to Extremes: Vehicle Ramming as a Terrorist Tactic

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, analyzes data related to vehicle ramming attacks (VRAs), which are terrorist attacks that utilize the kinetic force of a vehicle to strike its target. Kiesel uses the publicly available information from the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database, comprising records of VRAs from 1970 through 2018. Her commentary examines attacks with land vehicles, such as cars, trucks, tractors, and buses, in order to understand how extremists with limited means can still perpetrate a devastating attack with relatively few resources. Read Keisel’s article here.

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

Sign up for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ free newsletter and get the best coverage of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. For 75 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been publishing evidence-based coverage of the critical issues that threaten our world, elevating the experts above the noise. Contributors include Pandora Report regulars such as Greg Koblentz, Saskia Popescu, and Filippa Lentzos. We don’t have a second to waste — sign up today.

Election Excitement

As the country continues to wait with bated breath for the official announcement of the election victor, there are several matters hanging in the balance, many of which revolve around the ongoing pandemic. As Americans flock to the polls or ballot drop boxes, the daily average of newly confirmed cases in the US has reached an all-time high of over 86,000. US cases have broken 9 million and deaths have surpassed 234,000. Even if Biden wins, Trump has over 80 days left in office, which could see another 100,000 US deaths from the novel coronavirus. Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), encourages Americans to practice social distancing, frequently wash hands, and wear masks faithfully. In regard to the research and development underway for SARS-CoV-2 treatments and vaccines, many public health experts worry that these efforts will be hurt if Trump follows through with his threats to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci or any of the other top health officials with whom Trump has locked horns. Biden has already pledged to keep Fauci on board and “put scientists and public health officials front and center.” Biden has also promised to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) on his first day in office. Biden also intends to establish his own COVID-19 task force to work in parallel to Trump’s sidelined advisory panel. The new task force would include former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University’s Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale University’s Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel, and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita.

Regardless of the results, the 2020 election has proven to be a “disaster for public health,” as more than 67 million Americans seem to be following Trump’s lead on public health. According to preliminary exit polls, merely 14% of surveyed Republican voters listed the COVID-19 pandemic as the deciding factor in who they voted for. STAT found that interviewed scientists, epidemiologists, and public health experts were split about the future of public health.

Upcoming Event – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program is sponsoring an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. Please join a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event will be moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The event will be held as a live webinar on 17 November from Noon to 1:30 EST. Register at https://bit.ly/34vDJRQ.

Priorities for the Next President to Reduce Biological Threats

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) outlined a set of priorities for the next presidential term in a pair of papers, “Reducing Nuclear Risks: An Urgent Agenda for 2021 and Beyond” and “Preventing the Next Global Biological Catastrophe.” The former paper recommends adapting US policies and posture to reduce nuclear risks; working with Russia and China to reduce nuclear risks; strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime; prioritizing efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism in the homeland and abroad; and strengthening cohesion at home and diplomacy abroad. The latter paper recommends rescinding the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO); establishing a summit for heads-of-state regarding biological threats; promoting the establishment of a Global Health Security (GHS) Challenge Fund; supporting the launch of a Dedicated Global Entity for reducing the risk of a biotechnology catastrophe; advocating for the establishment of a permanent United Nations (UN) facilitator and unit within the Office of the UN Secretary-General dedicated to responding to high-consequence biological events; and strengthening international capabilities to rapidly investigate biological events of unknown origin.

Pandemic Priorities for the 117th Congress

Congressional Democrats previewed their legislative priorities for pandemic prevention and preparedness if they succeed in holding onto the House and flipping the Senate. In a letter released on October 22 addressed to the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House and Senate, 134 Senators and Representatives outlined a five-point plan to strengthen health security at home and abroad. The letter calls for increased investment in state, local, and tribal public health departments, including hiring 250,000 new public health workers, stronger biosurveillance efforts abroad to detect the emergence of new diseases, elimination of racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to healthcare, and mitigating the effects of environment degradation and climate change which contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

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

3 November Was One Health Day!

One Health Day is an international campaign coordinated jointly by the One Health Commission, the One Health Initiative Autonomous pro bono Team, and the One Health Platform Foundation. The purpose of One Health Day is to highlight the need for One Health approaches and initiatives and to showcase existing efforts. In this pandemic era, the importance of One Health has never been so clear given the likely zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. The One Health concept is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes by recognizing the interconnection between humans, animals, plants, and their shared environment.

UN Report Says Up to 850,000 Animal Viruses Could Be Caught by Humans Unless We Protect Nature

A report drafted from the Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics held by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The workshop recognized that pandemics are an “existential threat to the health and welfare of people across our planet.” Infectious disease events are occurring more frequently, largely due to “global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change.” Many of these changes push humans and wildlife together, creating more opportunities for zoonoses to emerge. The report states there may be as many as 850,000 animal viruses that could jump into humans if we do not take the necessary steps to protect nature. The high level of mobility in the world sets the stage for quick dissemination of diseases from one part of the world to another. The report asserts that pandemic risk could be lowered by decreasing anthropogenic global environmental change through the promotion of responsible consumption and the reduction of excessive consumption of meat from livestock production. Given that illegal wildlife trade is a major issue, improving regulations and surveillance of these activities would help lower pandemic risk.

Climate Change Catastrophe

On 4 November, the US officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, precisely one year after the withdrawal submission was cast. This move, which is final regardless of the winner of the US presidential election, is a major blow to international efforts to halt global climate change. The goal of the Agreement is to limit global warming to keep the global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to work toward limiting the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Trump’s climate legacy will center around his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and his moves to systematically undo federal climate policies instituted under Obama. Dozens of climate-related regulations have been reversed, such as rules on air pollution, emissions, drilling and oil and gas extraction. As the US pulls out, China and the European Union are taking the lead on mitigating climate change. Joe Biden, should he become president, has already stated that he would rejoin the Agreement. According to Michael Oppenheimer, a climate policy researcher at Princeton University, “The United States can’t simply jump back in and pretend it’s all back to 2015; it will need to work to regain trust.”

Biosecurity: The Importance of Digital Information Security

Merrick is hosting a free webinar on 11 November about the importance of data security as a vital element of institutional biosecurity. Merrick and GeneInfoSec Inc, a company that focuses on the security of genetic data and mitigation of related vulnerabilities, will cover the fundamentals of biosecurity and biorisk management, and the information security threat landscape within the laboratory environment. Register for the webinar here.

WH Adviser Scott Atlas Apologizes for Interview with Kremlin-Backed News Outlet

Dr. Scott Atlas, a White House coronavirus adviser, issued an apology last Sunday for doing an interview with Russia’s state-backed RT network. RT, formerly Russia Today, is an international television and news network financed by the government of Russian and its US arm is registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 2017. Its designation as a foreign agent means that its content is considered to be “propaganda attempting to influence US public opinion, policy and laws.” RT’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been flagged as under state-affiliated control. In a 2017 report from the US intelligence community, RT was branded as part of Russia’s “state-run propaganda machine,” which tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and possibly in this year’s election as well. In the interview, published on Halloween, Atlas downplayed the severity of the coronavirus surge in the US and claimed that lockdowns instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19 are “not impactful.” On 1 November, Atlas tweeted:

“I recently did an interview with RT and was unaware they are a registered foreign agent. I regret doing the interview and apologize for allowing myself to be taken advantage of. I especially apologize to the national security community who is working hard to defend us.”

Tests Show Genetic Signature of Virus That May Have Infected President Trump

The White House did not take basic steps to investigate its recent outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infections, such as extensive contact tracing or genetic sequencing. The New York Times (NYT) worked with prominent geneticists to discern the genetic sequence of viruses that infected two NYT journalists who were likely exposed while reporting on the White House. The two journalists had significant, but separate, exposure to White House officials in late September. Both experienced symptoms several days after their respective exposures, which occurred without being in proximity with each other. After testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the genomes of their viruses were analyzed and found to share the same distinct pattern of mutations. According to Trevor Bedford, the geneticist who led the research team with NYT, their exposures paired with the shared patterns in viral mutations suggests that the two journalists were infected in the White House outbreak. The White House did not conduct its own genetic analysis of those infected in its outbreak. Dr. David Engelthaler, head of the infectious disease branch of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, said, “It’s critical no matter where we are to sequence this virus.”

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. “The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation gift makes it possible for many students to attend our high-ranked security studies programs and prepare for careers in intelligence and security policy,” said Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell. “We are grateful for this new partnership that will advance our shared goal of educating and training future policy professionals in these fields.” Distinguished Visiting Professor and former Director of the CIA and NSA Michael V. Hayden touted the gift:

“There has never been a time when the national security threats facing our nation have been as diverse. The Schar School is growing to meet those challenges, be they from peer rivals, persistent terrorist threats, or the consequences of technological developments. This scholarship fund will enhance the Schar School’s already stellar reputation in attracting a strong and diverse pool of graduate student candidates who will serve as our next generation of hands-on, solutions-driven national security leaders.”

Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Pandora Report: 10.30.2020

Happy Halloween! For those of you with little monsters planning on trick-or-treating, consider building in a face covering into their costume to keep them safe from SCV2. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.” Dr. Lauren Quattrochi is joining the GMU Biodefense family and she carved out time to share her academic and professional journey, and impart some words of wisdom to biodefense students and aspiring experts!

Recent Congressional Testimony: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security about “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.” He focuses on five main topics: cyber, China, lawful access, election security, and counterterrorism. This article reviews the FBI Director’s depiction of these topics and provides additional characterizations of them, based on recent reports, legislation, and strategic guidance. Read Kiesel’s article here.

Meet Dr. Lauren Quattrochi: Multidisciplinary Pharmacologist, Virologist, Electrophysiologist, and New Adjunct Faculty Member for the Biodefense Graduate Program

Dr. Lauren Quattrochi (aka Dr. Q) is joining the GMU Biodefense family! Dr. Q is a classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuro-pharmacologist. Over the evolution of her career, she has worked within the biopharma industry, non-profits and for the past 4 years, in support of the government. She is currently a principal biotechnologist leading national level scientific and biosecurity initiatives within the US government. At the moment, Dr. Q serves as a technical advisor on both Hantavirus and COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing. This week, Dr. Q met with the Pandora Report to detail her academic and professional journey, and share her insights on a career in biodefense. Read about Dr. Q here.

Tips for Trick or Treating and Other Halloween Activities

Halloween is tomorrow and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided some guidance on how to stay healthy while trick-or-treating during a pandemic:

  • Avoid direct contact with trick-or-treaters
  • Give out treats outdoors, if possible
  • Set up a station with individually bagged treats for kids to take
  • Wash hands before handling treats or carry hand sanitizer
  • Wear a mask
  • Stay 6 feet away from other Halloween groups

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

Sign up for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ free newsletter and get the best coverage of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. For 75 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been publishing evidence-based coverage of the critical issues that threaten our world, elevating the experts above the noise. Contributors include Pandora Report regulars such as Greg Koblentz, Saskia Popescu, and Filippa Lentzos. We don’t have a second to waste — sign up today.

A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature Versus the Laboratory

Richard Pilch, Miles Pomper, Jill Luster, and Filippa Lentzos published a report with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey. The report, A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature versus the Laboratory, outlines an easily adoptable step-by-step methodology based on traditional epidemiological principles to guide the investigation of outbreak origins. This guide comes at an apropos time given the major gaps exposed by COVID-19. The risks of natural outbreaks and laboratory accidents are swelling; the possibility of a deliberate biological attack adds to the worries associated with pathogens. The authors aim to minimize the invasiveness of their proposed process while simultaneously enabling a thorough examination of the root cause of an outbreak.   

The Costs of Ransomware Attacks on Hospitals

A joint advisory by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the FBI stated that there is “credible information of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat” from ransomware attacks targeting US hospitals and healthcare providers. Hackers are using Ryuk ransomware to encrypt data and block users from accessing it, and they are using Trickbot to filch data, impede health care services, and extort money from healthcare facilities. Ryuk has hit at least five hospitals this week and could affect hundreds more. According to Brett Callow, an analyst at the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft, 59 US health care providers and systems have been impacted by ransomware in 2020, which has caused the disruption of patient care at up to 510 facilities. Germany is also facing cyber-attacks on their hospitals. After hackers disabled computer systems at Düsseldorf University Hospital, a female patient scheduled for live-saving treatment had to be transferred to a hospital 19 miles away. The patient died during the transfer, and prosecutors have launched a negligent homicide case that could place the blame of her death on the hackers.

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. “The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation gift makes it possible for many students to attend our high-ranked security studies programs and prepare for careers in intelligence and security policy,” said Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell. “We are grateful for this new partnership that will advance our shared goal of educating and training future policy professionals in these fields.” Distinguished Visiting Professor and former Director of the CIA and NSA Michael V. Hayden touted the gift:

“There has never been a time when the national security threats facing our nation have been as diverse. The Schar School is growing to meet those challenges, be they from peer rivals, persistent terrorist threats, or the consequences of technological developments. This scholarship fund will enhance the Schar School’s already stellar reputation in attracting a strong and diverse pool of graduate student candidates who will serve as our next generation of hands-on, solutions-driven national security leaders.”

Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Scientists Develop a Potential Antibiotic from Komodo Dragon Blood

As a possible creative basis for an antibiotic to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), scientists at George Mason University have developed a synthetic molecule by combining two genes found in Komodo dragon blood. In preclinical testing, the antibiotic, DRGN-6, killed carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacterium that causes a particularly aggressive form of pneumonia and is highly drug resistant. This breakthrough discovery is a “critical first step” to a potential novel antibiotic, but research and development to devise a market-worthy product could easily take another decade.

Human Embryo Genome Editing: The Debate Continues

A detailed report, Heritable Human Genome Editing, was published in September by an international commission of the US National Academy of Medicine, US National Academy of Sciences, and the UK’s Royal Society. The CRISPR Journal just released “Reactions to the National Academies/Royal Society Report on Heritable Human Genome Editing,” which proposes a “translational pathway for the limited approval of germline editing under certain circumstances and assuming various criteria have been met.” Three dozen experts in genome editing, medicine, bioethics, law, and more share their frank feedback to the report on Heritable Human Genome Editing.

Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security

The Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security (WCAPS) released Policy Papers by Women of Color, Second Edition: CBRN Policy and Global Health Security. The second edition features articles from members of the WCAPS working groups: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Security Policy; and Global Health Security. Papers cover topics such as diversity issues in the nuclear threat reduction workforce, threat analysis of small industrial radiological equipment, and the negative impact of AI-enabled automation on the US nuclear command, control, and communications system. Read these policy papers here.

$275 Million Commitment to Brew Better Molecules for Manufacturing

A coalition comprised of the Department of Defense and more than 80 companies, universities, states, and research institutes have committed to invest at least $275 million over the next seven years to augment microbial production of biomolecules. The funding is aimed at supporting the biomanufacturing industry so that it can supply a wide range of businesses with large quantities of chemicals at the low prices needed for them to be competitive with petroleum-based alternatives. The public-private partnership, the Bioindustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE), seeks to “employ the same principles of genetic engineering and engineering biology used in the pharmaceutical industry to produce chemicals other than drugs on a scale similar to that used to ferment corn into ethanol for transportation.”

State Department: Reducing Revisionist State Biological and Chemical Weapons Threats

The Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN/CTR) at the Department of State is funding cooperative agreements to detect and disrupt the ability of “revisionist proliferator states” to develop chemical and biological weapons (CBW) capabilities. Revisionist proliferator states utilize a variety of underhanded or illegal methods to procure sensitive equipment and weaponizable materials for illicit CBW purposes. The Reducing Revisionist State Biological and Chemical Weapons Threats funding opportunity seeks to support “creative and competitive proposals that utilize open-source information to map potential illicit revisionist state CBW procurement networks, develop targeted interventions to disrupt access to dual-use biological materials and equipment, and limit access to necessary biological and chemical scientific knowledge and expertise.”

Keep Focus on Emerging Infections, Disease X: Analysts

A recent report from a global health think tank found that the United States was the biggest infectious disease research donor, but also the biggest funding beneficiary. Between 2014-18, funding for research and development mostly went toward diseases that received much public attention, instead of diseases that were possible causes of future pandemics (like Disease X) or that caused the greatest health burdens. This imbalance shows that funding is not based on a forward-looking approach, hindering our ability to prevent and prepare for the next big outbreak. Madhukar Pai, director of the International Tuberculosis Centre at McGill University in Canada, predicts that funding data will reveal a “100% covidisation” of infectious disease R&D funding for 2020 and 2021.

COVID‐19 and the Boundaries of Open Science and Innovation

As the world becomes increasingly digitized, the concept of Open Science plays an increasingly important role in research and technology. Open Science, empowered by digital communication technologies, endeavors to make publicly-funded scientific research available to any scientist or researcher through the unhindered sharing of results, data, methods, reagents, and technologies. Minari, Yoshiwaza, and Shinomiya point out that mandates and policies designed to support Open Science can clash with privacy, data protection, and security. They highlight that “privacy and data protection legislation… reign supreme over data sharing for human‐related biomedical research.” The sharing of information related to pathogens and infectious diseases can also create biosecurity concerns. The authors recommend a system to trace data back to their origins in order to assure data quality and legitimacy.

Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: What We Know

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released proceedings of a workshop, Airborne Transmission of SARS-COV-2, detailing what is currently known on the topic. Individuals generate aerosols and droplets across broad spectrums of sizes and concentrations, and aerosol production varies based on the person and activity.  Strong evidence exists that aerosol transmission is an important pathway for the spread of SCV2; however, research is challenging and more study is needed. In good news, ultraviolet (UV) light significantly decreases virus stability, but lower temperatures and humidity may increase stability. Evidence also shows that face coverings, like masks, reduce community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

How COVID-19 is Affecting the Global Response to AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

The COVID-19 pandemic is greatly impacting the world’s most vulnerable communities by threatening progress on the fights against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), and malaria. It is estimated that a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to over half a million additional deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa. Though 2020 celebrated the distribution of the 2 billionth bed net for malaria prevention, the pandemic has disrupted malaria services like insecticide-treated net campaigns and access to antimalarials. As a result of these troubles, sub-Saharan Africa could see a doubling of malaria deaths. Lockdowns and medical services limitations could “erase five years of progress on TB, increasing the annual number of deaths and cases over the next five years.” The estimated cost of a 3-month lockdown and 10-month restoration of services is an additional 6.4 million TB cases and 1.4 million deaths.

Pandora Report: 10.23.2020

Tomorrow is World Polio Day! In 1988, the World Health Assembly pledged to prioritize polio eradication, and the virus was still present in 125 countries. By 2017, only 3 countries were reporting cases of wild poliovirus. Today, the virus has been reduced to only one type and comprehensive eradication is within reach. Also, Happy 25th Anniversary to CRDF Global! This weekend marks the first games for the Big 10. How will this impact rising case numbers in the Big 10 region? The Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive identified 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC).

In Memoriam: Dennis M. Gormley

We are very sad to announce the passing of Dennis M. Gormley, nonproliferation expert and husband of Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley.  The Biodefense Program offers its deepest condolences to Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, where Dennis worked for several years, issued this in memoriam:

“It is with great sadness that the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) notes the passing of our long-time colleague and friend, Dennis M. Gormley. A recognized expert on arms control and weapons of mass destruction proliferation—and a leading specialist in particular on cruise missile proliferation—Mr. Gormley served as CNS Senior Fellow during the early 2000s, based in the Center’s Washington, DC, office. Among Dennis’s important contributions to the nonproliferation field are Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Praeger, 2008) and A Low Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (National Defense University, 2014, with Andrew S. Erickson and Jingdong Yuan). His articles have appeared in numerous scholarly publications, including the CNS peer-reviewed journal, the Nonproliferation Review. We extend our sincere condolences to Dennis’s wife, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, another former member of the CNS family.”

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Complex Revealed

On 19 October, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive released a major report on Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the organization responsible for Syria’s chemical weapon and ballistic missile programs. The report, based on a two -year investigation of information provided by Syrian defectors and open sources, identifies 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to the SSRC. According to the report, Institute 3000 was responsible for developing Syria’s chemical weapons and Branch 450 was responsible for protecting and transporting these weapons and preparing them for use. Branch 410 of Institute 2000 and Branch 797 of Institute 4000 produced chlorine barrel bombs that were used extensively throughout the Syrian civil war. In April, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) identified the Syrian Arab Air Force as being responsible for a chlorine barrel bomb attack against a hospital in Ltamenah in March 2017. Institute 4000 was also responsible for developing the short-range rockets filled with sarin that were used in East Ghouta in August 2013. The role of the Assad regime in conducting the East Ghouta attack and the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun were the subject of separate studies by Open Society Justice Initiative, Syrian Archive, and Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression which were sent to the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office in early October for investigation as international war crimes. Biodefense program director Professor Gregory Koblentz assisted the Open Society Justice Initiative in the preparation of these reports as a pro bono consultant. 

The release of these reports is incredibly timely in the wake of Syria’s refusal to comply with a deadline issued by the OPCW’s Executive Council that Syria comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention and declare all of its chemical weapons and production facilities by early October. On 14 October, the Director-General of the OPCW informed states parties that Syria had not provided any additional information as required. Syria’s non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention will be addressed at the Conference of States Parties which will take place on November 30-December 4, 2020 at the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. 

CRDF Global is Celebrating 25 Years of Safety, Security, and Sustainability

2020 marks the 25th year of CRDF Global’s commitment to promoting global security and stability! CRDF Global is an independent nonprofit organization that provides flexible logistical support, program design and management, and strategic capacity building programs in the areas of higher education, CBRNE security and nonproliferation, border security, cybersecurity, global health, technology entrepreneurship, and international professional exchanges. Earlier this month, CRDF global was awarded two subcontracts from Leidos in support of the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). CRDF Global will be supporting the DTRA-BTRP mission of facilitating the security, detection, and surveillance of diseases caused by exceptionally dangerous pathogens. In the Philippines and Jordan, the organization will mentor and train researchers at government agencies and academic institutions in writing competitive research proposals for international funding and technical articles suitable for submission to peer-reviewed publications.

Trump Isn’t Contagious Now. But His Administration Will Still Get People Sick.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Term Assistant Professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program and infection prevention expert, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post about Trump’s recent rallies demonstrating his dismissive approach to the ongoing pandemic. Though the US has surpassed 8 million cases of COVID-19, Trump continues to espouse that the pandemic is NBD and that the disease “affects virtually nobody.” On 2 October, both Trump and the First Lady tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a short hospitalization for him. Trump’s first post-hospital rally was held 12 October, merely one week after his diagnosis, an event that likely exposed many of his own supporters to the virus. Though Trump ignored the safety of our population, Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate did not: she cancelled campaign events due to a staffer and an airline attendant with whom she was in close contact testing positive for COVID-19. Read Popescu’s article here.

Call to Action: CSIS-LSHTM High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) convened the High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation. The Panel shared a set of five recommendations for US leadership:

  1. The rapid launch of an independent panel on vaccines and misinformation to stimulate an updated national conversation and carry out a swift assessment of the decline in public trust and confidence in vaccines, public authorities, and science, as well as the root causes of these losses and the implications therein
  2. The public sector should guide innovations for reaching diverse and underserved populations with vaccines and other health and social services support
  3. Mainstream traditional and digital media outlets should commit publicly and voluntarily to improving the information climate related to vaccines
  4. Leaders in the critical social and economic sectors should engage in greater activism
  5. The administration should create a new capacity within the National Security Council (NSC) directorate that facilitates collaboration across agencies and sectors to address global health security and biodefense

Read the full CSIS-LSHTM Call to Action here.

Winners of NTI’s 2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition Announced

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security Network announced the winners of the fourth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition, at which Dr. Gregory Koblentz, the Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was a judge. The winning team included Jonas Sandbrink, a medical student at the University of Oxford; Joshua Monrad, a master’s candidate in health policy, planning, and financing at the University of London (LSHTM, LSE); and Sriharshita Musunuri, a chemistry and computer science undergraduate student at Stanford University. These three students developed a paper, “Widening the Framework for Regulation of Dual-Use Research in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which argues that governments and research entities need to take special steps to reduce the possibility of dual-use research that can be exploited during a pandemic when the scientific community is focusing on vital research to advance vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The winning authors recommend expanding the definition of dual-use research of concern, strengthening regulatory frameworks for dual-use research oversight, and developing robust mechanisms beyond policymaking to reinforce dual-use considerations in biomedical research.

The Inside Story of How Trump’s COVID-19 Coordinator Undermined the World’s Top Health Agency

In July, a meeting of COVID-19 experts from across the US government received alarming news. White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx removed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s system for collecting hospital data in favor of a private contractor, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies Inc. Birx’s decision to pull the plug on the CDC’s data system was based on the agency’s inability to collect 100% of the hospital COVID-19 data every day, a practically impossible expectation. Birx’s demand would require that every hospital in the nation clean and update all of their COVID-related data on a daily basis while also providing medical care for COVID patients and non-COVID patients. The loss of control over COVID-19 hospital data is one among many factors contributing to the ongoing crisis at the CDC. Birx’s public comments lambasting the CDC have further undermined its work and expertise. Though she has received praise for being a “good scientist who gets things done,” she has also been criticized for railroading people, failing to listen to experts, and failing to recognize her own lack of a background in respiratory disease outbreaks. The abandoned CDC system, the National Healthcare Safety Network, used for the better part of 20 years was functional but imperfect; the TeleTracking system is operating with a greater lag, running 3-4 days behind. The CDC system showed 3-6% missing data for items such as COVID-19 inpatient bed occupancy and ventilator use; TeleTracking showed 36%-57% missing data.

As Coronavirus Surges, Select Subcommittee Releases White House Reports Contradicting President Trump on Testing, Masks

Reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force reveal that the administration has been aware for weeks that cases are mounting, spurring a need for mask mandates and increased testing. These revelations arise even as Trump openly downplayed the pandemic and held crowded events for his campaign. The reports validate that testing levels are too low to contain SARS-CoV-2 and it recommends that all 50 states increase testing, laboratory capacity, or testing surveillance activities. The Task Force calls on 11 states to dramatically increase testing at universities, 12 states to increase testing capacity, and encourages test results to be available with 48 hours. At present, report show that 31 states are in the “red zone” to instigate mask mandates.

The Big Ten is Making a Big Mistake

The first Big Ten football games are scheduled for this weekend, reversing the conference’s previous decision to postpone fall sports. Though states in this conference were seeing improvements in their case numbers, most have experienced surges of late. According to the Center for Health Security, all states except Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have reported new record high daily incidence since August. Yesterday, health officials in Washtenaw County, Michigan, home to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, issued a “stay in place” order to college students in response to increasing incidence among students and the university community. Several mayors are concerned that the Big Ten schools are not taking sufficient precautions against the virus and signed an open letter to the conference and universities urging them to heighten safeguards during football games. This weekend will show whether or not increased safety measures were implemented and reveal the impact of resuming football season in COVID-19.

Pandora Report: 10.16.2020

Today is World Food Day! The pandemic, conflict, and climate change are increasing hunger across globe, so this year’s theme centers around growing, nourishing, and sustaining together. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN calls for global solidarity to help all populations recover from the crisis, and to make food systems more resilient and robust.  Speaking of the pandemic, winter is coming – how will the impending flu season impact the COVID-19 pandemic? As a friendly reminder, get your flu shot ASAP!

World CRISPR Day: 20 October

October 20th is World CRISPR Day! Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is a technology that enables gene editing. World CRISPR Day will bring together the genome engineering community to discuss how to safely enable discovery, therapeutic innovation, and practical applications. Synthego is hosting a conference on World CRISPR Day that features Dr. Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry and CRISPR pioneer. Register for the conference here.

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the characteristic in which microbes – viruses, bacteria, and fungi – change over time and exposure in ways that render antimicrobial medicines futile against them. Globally, about 700,000 people die from these infections annually. The combination of growing resistance across microbes to multiple therapeutics with the lagging creation of new drugs has made AMR a global issue. In the US, there are over 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and 35,000 deaths each year. Measuring economic impact is complicated, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that a specific subset of AMR infection caused at least $4.8 billion in medical costs in 2017.

To better address this growing threat to public health, the US just released the 2020-2025 National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB), which shares the “coordinated, strategic actions that the United States Government will take in the next five years to improve the health and wellbeing of all Americans by changing the course of antibiotic resistance.” The latest CARB builds on the 2014 National Strategy for CARB and the 2015 National Action Plan. The updated Plan continues to prioritize infection prevention and control in order to reduce the spread of AMR infections and shrink the need for antimicrobial use. The Plan consists of a One Health Approach that integrates activities related to the health of humans, animals, plants, and the environment. Additionally, the Plan focuses on data collection and use in order to further the understanding of the process of resistance and to support the development of new diagnostics and treatment options. The US has five goals to reduce the incidence and impact of AMR infections: (1)  slow the emergence of resistant bacteria and prevent the spread of resistant infection; (2) strengthen national One Health surveillance efforts; (3) advance development and use of rapid and innovative diagnostic tests; (4) accelerate basic and applied R&D for new antimicrobials; and (5) improve international collaboration and capacities for AMR prevention, surveillance, control, and R&D. Read the latest CARB Plan here.

Murder He Wrote

A recent essay by Natasha Bajema, Founder and CEO of Nuclear Spin Cycle, LLC, and Ronit Langer, Scoville Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the importance of protecting biodata for national security and for staying out of the slammer. The digitization of biodata – human genomes, gene sequences, DNA from living organisms, and other human health-related information – is revolutionizing medicine, but also altering human interaction in the real world. The authors describe three critical dimensions of biodata that are essential to protecting national security and “keeping you out of prison in the event you’re someday accused of murdering your colleague.” These three dimensions of biodata exhibit the strategic value of such data, but also reveal the mounting risks to US national security without suitable protections against discrimination, error, unauthorized access, misuse, and theft.

The three dimensions are the digital-to-physical, privacy, and big data. The digital-to-physical dimension is a game changer given that scientists can now use gene synthesis techniques to transform 2-D digital data into 3-D physical material that exists outside of a computer and forms the basis of living organisms. Within the privacy dimension, individuals are increasingly having their genomes sequenced by medical and commercial entities, so the tiny segment of their genome that is unique is now information that others can obtain and potentially exploit. Consumer-based DNA testing, like 23&Me, does not provide the same protections afforded to whole genome sequencing performed for medical reasons, which is part of an individual’s medical record protected under US law. The big data dimension focuses on the need to leverage the potential of gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR, to improve human health and power precision medicine by providing scientists with “accurate and digitized knowledge about gene sequences and genomes of living organisms.” Scientists and medical researchers need “access to reliable collections of big data and sophisticated machine learning tools to analyze massive volumes of biodata.”

Documentary – America’s Medical Supply Crisis

A new collaborative documentary from PBS Frontline, The Associated Press, and the Global Reporting Centre, America’s Medical Supply Crisis, addresses the question, “Why was the United States left scrambling for critical medical equipment as the coronavirus swept the country?” The film delves into the supply chain weaknesses and failures that led to personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages and the political delays that worsened it. The investigation includes primary source documents as well as interviews of experts in business and science, government officials, those involved in PPE production and distribution, and workers affected by the shortages. Watch the documentary here.

Winter Is Coming

Winter is coming and brings with it some added complications to the raging pandemic: cold and flu season. The seasonal flu is a viral respiratory infection that presents with symptoms similar to COVID-19. Last year in the US, the fall and winter months saw a 40-fold increase in flu cases compared to the spring and summer months. Another red flag as we approach wintertime is that mortality from the 1918 influenza outbreak was five times as high in the US during the late fall and winter than in the summer. Unfortunately, the gaps in COVID-19 knowledge about the infectious dose needed to acquire the disease impedes transmission estimates; however, some preparations can be made. If possible, boost air circulation indoors and use good filters to reduce the amount of virus collecting in the space. The seasonal flu vaccine is more important now more than ever before, so get your flu shot ASAP!

Database Brings Clarity to Chemical Weapons Lists

A new database of chemical warfare agents (CWAs) includes molecular structures and other key information to help “facilitate communication between chemists and policymakers.” The database was developed by Stefano Costanzi, Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University; Charlotte K. Slavick, Department of Chemistry at American University; Brent O. Hutcheson, Department of Chemistry at American University; Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program; and Richard T. Cupitt, Senior Fellow and Director Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention Program at The Stimson Center. Chemical weapons are controlled by three international frameworks: The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) bans the use of any toxic chemical as a weapon; the Australia Group coordinates export regulations for CWA precursors; and the Wassenaar Arrangement is dedicated to arms control of CWAs. Each of these frameworks maintains its own list of CWAs and precursors, and the database organizes chemicals from all lists into an online database with additional details on each item. View the curated lists of chemicals here.

Upcoming Event – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program is sponsoring an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. Please join a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event will be moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The event will be held as a live webinar on 17 November from Noon to 1:30 EST. Register at https://bit.ly/34vDJRQ.

Inside the Fall of the CDC

2020 will likely be the darkest era in the 74-year history of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has fallen from its station as the premier public health agency to a “target of anger, scorn and even pity.” ProPublica conducted its own investigation into the stumbles of the CDC in the COVID-19 response. The analysis ProPublica includes hundreds of emails and other internal government documents and interviews of over 30 CDC employees, contractors, and Trump administration officials with first-hand knowledge of key moments in the pandemic pandemonium. Senior staff members at CDC detail battles about protecting the US population from COVID-19, but also a war to protect science from the administration. Regrettably, these battles have mostly been lost by the CDC. According to ProPublica, in the aggregate, these documents and interviews paint a picture of “an insular, rigorous agency colliding head-on with an administration desperate to preserve the impression that it had the pandemic under control.” CDC experts, even veterans with international notoriety, were sidelined, silenced, or shifted to different roles. Nearly a year into the pandemic, many worry that the CDC has lost the public’s trust and confidence, and the timeline to recover that faith could take years. Most unfortunately, longtime CDC staff are also losing trust in their own agency. One interviewee said, “Many of us who might be viewed as complicit need to decide whether we need to leave. Or can we be part of the ‘never again’ so that the agency never gets this kind of political interference again?”

The Coronavirus Unveiled

The New York Times debuted an interactive article that details the structure of SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19. The resource covers the what is known about the virus’s protein spike, shield of sugar molecules, tangled genome, and more. Spike proteins play an essential role: latching onto host cells in our airway to allow the virus to slip inside. The virus uses a shield comprised of sugar to hide from the antibodies seeking to overpower it. On 10 January, Chinese scientists published the 30,000-letter sequence of the virus’s genome, which required the precise untangling RNA strands. Read the interactive article here to learn more about the pathogen the world is fighting.

Pandora Report: 10.9.2020

On this day in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the atomic program that would become the Manhattan Project. And on this day in 2020, we are facing continued breaches of the Chemical Weapons Convention in Syria, the resignation of Rick Bright from the NIH, the uncertainty of what to do should many in federal leadership be incapacitated, and Alaskapox. In good news, this week we are debuting another new contributor to the Pandora Report, Michelle Grundahl! Michelle is a student in the Biodefense MS Program and her academic interests center around the interface of One Health and biodefense.

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

Michelle Grundahl, a student in the Biodefense MS Program, attended the virtual 2020 Ag & Food Policy Summit held by Agri-Pulse. The Summit highlighted the links between food security and national security. This event consisted of topics in food trade, farming practices, agricultural technology, biosecurity, food contamination, and national stability. Read Grundahl’s takeaways here.

Upcoming Event – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program is sponsoring an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. Please join a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event will be moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The event will be held as a live webinar on 17 November from Noon to 1:30 EST. Register at https://bit.ly/34vDJRQ.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Launched a New App!

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is now available as a mobile app! Here, you can read the latest stories for free and access the premium 2020 magazine issues! The app is available for download on the Apple Store, Google Play, and Amazon/Kindle Store.

Rick Bright, Trump Administration Vaccine Expert Turned Whistle Blower, Resigns NIH Post

On Tuesday, Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert for the Trump administration, resigned from the federal government. In April, Bright was abruptly reassigned from serving as the Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to a lower position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After the demotion, Bright filed a formal whistleblower complaint stating that he was “involuntarily transferred to a lower position at the National Institutes of Health because he raised concerns about the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response and about nepotism in the Department of Health and Human Services.” He amended the whistleblower complaint the day he resigned, stating that he had been given just one assignment since his reassignment, which he completed before stepping down. HHS has ignored the recommendation from the Office of Special Counsel, which reviews whistleblower complaints, that Bright be reinstated to his old job at BARDA pending a full investigation of his complaint.

COVID-19 & Achieving Health Equity

The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions recently released a new report, COVID-19 & Achieving Health Equity: Congressional Action is Necessary to Address Racism and Inequality in the US Health Care System. The SAR-CoV-2 pandemic has disproportionately hit Black, Latinx, Tribal communities, and other communities of color, which are suffering from the virus and dying from it at a higher rate. The disproportionate impact is “particularly true for people of color who have a disability, are older adults, have preexisting conditions, are LGBTQIA+, or are low-income workers.” This report examines the relationship between the pandemic, disparity in infection rates and health outcomes, and structural racism within the healthcare system. The review illustrates the impact that the pandemic has had on communities of color and provides initial steps that Congress can take to start addressing inequality and systemic racism within the healthcare system.

Symptoms of a Broken System: The Gender Gap in COVID-19 Decision-Making

A new commentary in BMJ Global Health highlights the “glaring lack” of females in COVID-19 pandemic decision-making bodies. An analysis of 87 countries found that only 3.5% of 115 identified COVID-19 decision-making and expert task forces have gender parity in their membership; 85.2% are majority male. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, men have long dominated leadership positions in global health, which is a symptom of a broken system in which governance fails to be inclusive. This lack of inclusivity spans gender, geography, sexual orientation, race, socio-economic status or disciplines within and beyond health. Inequitable power structures are undermining an effective response to COVID-19 and costing lives. The authors analyzed quantitative data to estimate the gender gap in task forces established to prevent, monitor, and mitigate the pandemic. Read the full commentary here.

Chemical Weapons in Syria

On Monday, a coalition of non-governmental organizations comprised of the Justice Initiative, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), and Syrian Archive filed a criminal complaint against the Assad regime on behalf of the victims of chemical weapons attacks. The complaint was submitted to the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor and includes evidence from the most detailed investigations completed thus far regarding the sarin attacks on Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun that took place in 2013 and 2017. This is the first action of its kind.

Earlier this year the US Department of State reported that the Assad regime continues to acquire components for chemical weapons (and missile programs) despite the destruction of Syria’s declared production facilities and stockpiles of chemical weapons. State believes that the regime aims to reestablish its strategic weapons production capabilities. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, commented on the evidence that Syria is rebuilding its chemical weapons program: “The United States has been sanctioning front companies working for the Syrian chemical weapons program since 2013 and 2014—that would indicate ongoing attempts at procurement.” Koblentz also pointed out that the administration’s reference to a strategic program suggests that Syria may be seeking to expand its chemical weapons threat in order to deter attacks by regional rivals, namely Israel.

The report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-United Nations Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) details lessons learned from the investigation into Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in 2015-2017. The JIM’s specific mandate to identify those responsible for the use of chemical weapons was a unique undertaking, and therefore, there was great value and interest in discussing, identifying and evaluating the lessons to be learned from the experience of the JIM.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

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

Contagion-in-Chief

“If you told me that somebody who was only testing, not wearing their mask, not distancing, and not taking every other precautionary measure tested positive,” said Dr. Saskia Popescu, a biodefense expert and alumna of GMU, “I would say: No shit, Sherlock.” Last week, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive with COVID-19. This is unsurprising given that Trump has long refused to wear a mask in most cases, and most everyone he comes in contact with are to have a coronavirus test beforehand. Despite the ongoing pandemic, Trump continues to follow an aggressive campaign schedule while openly mocking mask-wearing and social distancing practices. Ignoring the concerns of epidemiologists, the White House’s prevention plan revolved around frequent use of Abbott’s ID Now diagnostic test. This strategy disregards the fact that testing does not reduce the risk of exposure to the novel virus.

What if several of our nation’s leaders become incapacitated? At present, there is no plan. The lack of plan should such a scenario arise was identified after 9/11, but we still do not have one. Norman Orstein, a member of the Continuity of Government Commission and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out that the on 9/11 all lines of succession were based in DC, increasing vulnerability should a devastating attack be carried out in our capital. Orstein also emphasizes that “there are ambiguities concerning what happens if officials die right before an election or during the transition; and the set of constitutional provisions on succession.” For instance, the 25th Amendment provides for replacing the vice president and handling a presidential disability, but it does not have a stipulation for if both the president and the vice president are incapacitated. Finally, Orstein underscores the uncertainty around an election should a candidate perish in October. For the upcoming election, ballots are already printed and more than 1 million people have already cast their votes. If the election went forward after such a misfortune, what would electors do?

In terms of national security, the Pentagon immediately assuaged any fears the Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis could present an imminent threat.  Jonathon Hoffman, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, announced that there was “no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces.” Regardless, Trump’s diagnosis exhibits the challenge for leaders charged with protecting the US from an array of foreign and domestic threats. There are mechanisms created to handle instability should a president suffer harm or injury, according to several current and former national security officials. Yet, John Gans, a former Pentagon speechwriter and author, noted that Trump’s actions while in office may increase the risk of a “total breakdown in decision making in government.” When a president falls ill, there is the potential for security implications, but in this case, security concerns are partly predicated on if Trump’s condition deteriorates. Eric Brewer, a former NSC official during the Trump and Obama administrations, stated that he does not anticipate “any major shifts in either how our national security apparatus operates or the actions of our adversaries” so long as Trump’s symptoms remains mild. On the other hand, Samantha Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst and former NSC official during the Obama administration, considers the situation to be significantly more urgent. Vinograd called trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis a “worst-case scenario from a national security perspective,” because it could “cripple the US government” as we await test results for many others in government.

The intelligence community will now closely monitor adversaries in case foreign foes seize on this period of uncertainty in the White House. According to Norman Roule, a former senior intelligence official, the intelligence community will conduct analysis and multi-source data collection regarding “decision making, military activity, as well as movements of personnel and resources that would facilitate operations against us,” particularly for the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and terrorist groups.

OPCW Confirms Use of Novichok Agent to Poison Alexei Navalny

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that a Novichok agent was used to poison Alexei Navalny. OPCW-designated laboratories confirmed that the biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics to toxic chemicals belonging to schedules 1.A.14 and 1.A.15, which were added to the CWC late last year. The OPCW also responded to a request from Russia to dispatch experts from the Technical Secretariat to the Russian Federation to cooperate with Russian experts. OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias responded to this request by assuring Russian Federation authorities that the Technical Secretariat is “ready to provide the requested expertise and that a team of experts could be deployed on short notice.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Stefano Costanzi, Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University, are proponents of revising the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to better restrict the use of Novichok nerve agents as weapons. After the use of Novichok in Salisbury in March 2018 in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, Koblentz and Costanzi argued that amending schedules to include Novichok agents would significantly strengthen the CWC. Earlier this year, the pair of experts again advocated updating the CWC, citing the 2018 poisonings of Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess in the UK, who happened upon a discarded perfume bottle containing Novichok. Sturgess, who sprayed herself to sample the fragrance, became the only fatality from a chemical weapons agent used in the UK. In regard to the recent attack on Navalny, Koblentz pointed out that the specific agent was most likely A-262, or its analog, given that it was not among the agents added to last year’s CWC Schedule 1 update.

Public Health Champion Asks CDC Director to Expose White House & Orchestrate His Own Firing

William Foege, a former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requested that Robert Redfield, the current Director of the CDC, expose the failed US response to the COVID-19 pandemic and calls on Redfield to arrange his own dismissal. Foege’s letter to Redfield urges him to “acknowledge the tragedy of responding poorly, apologize for what has happened and your role in acquiescing, set a course for how CDC would now lead the country if there was no political interference, give them the ability to report such interference to a neutral ombudsman, and assure them that you will defense their attempts to save this country.”

CDC Updates Guidance: COVID-19 Can Spread Via Airborne Transmission

After much discord, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added information about airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the novel virus that causes COVID-19. At present, the CDC site states that airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus is occurring, but that available data indicate that transmission via close contact with an infected person is much more common. This week, a letter in Science opened with: “There is overwhelming evidence that inhalation of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) represents a major transmission route for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).” This letter highlights the urgent need to “harmonize discussions about modes of virus transmission across disciplines to ensure the most effective control strategies and provide clear and consistent guidance to the public.”

Novel Orthopoxvirus Infections in Alaska: “Alaskapox”

Near Fairbanks, Alaska, there have been two cases of infection with a newly discovered Orthopoxvirus (OPXV) virus, dubbed “Alaskapox.” The first case occurred in July 2015 when a woman developed a small ulceration and presented with symptoms of fever and fatigue. This August, the second case arose in another woman who experienced similar symptoms. At present, the potential public health impact of the new OPXV is limited and there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission; however, the animal-to-human transmission route is unclear. A 2019 study of the phylogeny and genomics of Alaskapox suggested that the Alaska isolate of the virus shares a common ancestor with Old World OPXVs and diverged from New World OPXVs.

Pandora Report: 10.2.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

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

2019 Annual Report of the Federal Select Agent Program

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

Anti-Science Extremism in America: Escalating and Globalizing

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

Hold Russia Accountable for Latest Chemical Weapons Attack

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

FBI: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

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

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

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

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

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

OPCAST Ad-Hoc Pandemic Response Group

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 9.25.2020

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

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

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

Schar School Job Talk: Careers in Policy and Security

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

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

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

Ricin Letters

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

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

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

Healthcare Workers Make Up 1 in 7 Reported Coronavirus Infections Globally

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

50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic

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

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

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

In Response: Yan et al Preprint

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

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

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

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

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

Pandora Report: 9.18.2020

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

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

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

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

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

Dozens More Mystery Drone Incursions Over US Nuclear Power Plants Revealed

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

Welcome, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi!

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

The Passing of an Arms Control Legend

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

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

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

Putin Borrowed a Page from Assad’s Chemical Weapon Playbook

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

UN Assembly Approves Pandemic Resolution; US, Israel Object

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

The Labs Where Monsters Live

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 9.11.2020

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

In Memory of 9/11

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

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

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

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

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

Update: COVID-19 Vaccine

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

History of Nerve Agent Assassinations

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

Navigating a Post-Pandemic World

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

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

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

Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy

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

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

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

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

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

News of the Weird: COVID-19 Instigates Ad Changes

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