Pandora Report 07.23.2021

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

The Debate Continues: Origins of SARS-CoV-2

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

CDC Vote of No Confidence in British “Freedom Day”

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

Citius, Altius, Fortius…Infectious?

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

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

COVID and Congress

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 Vaccine Inequities

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

Another Successful Workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security

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

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

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

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

Don’t Forget the Classics: Updates on Plague

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

Opinion: Putin Escapes Accountability for Chemical Weapons Use

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

Improving the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

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

How to Build a Global Pathogen Early Warning System

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

Congratulations to Bonnie Jenkins on Her Recent Confirmation

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

Webinar: The Threat of Designer Pathogens, August 3

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

Schar School PhD Virtual Open House, August 11

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

George Mason University Announces New Vaccination Requirements

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

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

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

Pandora Report 07.16.2021

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

COVID-19’s Impact on the Risk of Bioterrorism

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

Is Your Office Safe from COVID-19?

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

COVID-19 Vaccines: Booster Shots and Vaccine Passports

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

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

GMU Biodefense Professor Serving on Committee to Address Biothreats Misinformation

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

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

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

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

Public Health Preparedness News

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

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

WHO Releases Reports on Human Genome Editing

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

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

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

A Model Code of Conduct for Biological Scientists

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

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

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

Rosatom Report Describes Radiological Terrorism Risk from the Islamic State

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

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

Chemical Weapons: Deployment, Destruction, and Other Developments

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 07.09.2021

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

Ensuring Biosafety and Biosecurity When Working with Deadly Pathogens

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

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

Debate Over the COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Gene Company with Military Ties Harvesting Data from Pregnant Women

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

COVID-19 By the Numbers

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

Podcast on Aerobiology and War

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

The Biological Weapons Convention Summer Update

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

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

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

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

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

Webinar on Institutional Strengthening of the BWC: July 14

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

Webinar on Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerable Populations: July 15

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

Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop: July 19-21

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

Pandora Report: 07.02.2021

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

Biodefense Alumni on Innovation, Nuclear Security, and Biological Threats

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

The Latest on COVID-19

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

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

Exacerbated Inequality During the Pandemic

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

COVID-19 Highlighted the Need for ASPR Reforms

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

Biosafety, Biosecurity, and COVID-19 Origins

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

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

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

New Tool: The Dual-Use Quickscan

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

Cybersecurity and the Intersection with WMD Threats

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

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

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

Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal?

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

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

A National Strategy for Domestic Terrorism

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

The strategy is organized around four pillars:

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

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

Recently Released Resources on Terrorism

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

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

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

Event: Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

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

Pandora Report: 5.14.2021

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

Event – Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

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

Toward A Whole-of-Society Framework for Countering Disinformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NTI | bio is partnering with the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to foster biosecurity professional development within the Next Generation GHS Network. We are seeking innovative and creative papers for online publication by NTI | bio and the NextGen GHS Network focused on responsible conduct of life science research. The winning team also will receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva.

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

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

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

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

Poll Finds Public Health Has A Trust Problem

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board

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

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

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

Ineffective Past, Uncertain Future

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

Incentives to Vaccinate

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

Pandora Report: 5.7.2021

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

The ‘Vaccine’ Emoji Gets a New Look This Week

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

COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism Will Cost Lives Worldwide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the full conversation here.

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

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

Cheminformatics at the Stimson Center

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

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

A Revolution Is Sweeping the Science of Ancient Diseases

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

Pandora Report: 4.23.2021

State Department releases its annual reports assessing arms control compliance and adherence. Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program, receives the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees. Globally, to date, there have been nearly 145 million cases of COVID-19 and over 3 million deaths from the novel coronavirus. In much-needed good news, all adults (16 years and older) in the US are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

State Department Releases Arms Control Compliance Reports

The US Department of State released its reports regarding compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements and commitments. The report assesses the adherence of the US as well as other nations, including Iran, North Korea, Syria, China, and Russia. In short, the activities of the US in 2020 were “consistent with the obligations set forth in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” Additionally, the US has “provided a full and complete declaration of its chemical weapons (CW) and associated CW facilities, and continues to work toward completing the destruction of CW and associated CW facilities, in accordance with its CWC obligations.” Turning to the activities of other countries, there are concerns about BWC compliance in China and Iran. North Korea and Russia are suspected of maintaining offensive biological weapons programs, which violates Article I of the BWC.

State’s 2021 report on CWC compliance alleges that Iran and Myanmar are in violation of the CWC for failing to declare former chemical weapons facilities. GMU’s Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and master’s student Madeline Roty encourage the US to help Myanmar come clean about its chemical weapons program in an article released in March 2020. The motivation and objective of the clandestine weapons program remains unclear, but speculation includes defense or offense measures against domestic insurgencies or neighboring countries. Despite its continued denial of the program, Myanmar seems to be moving toward transparency with its willingness to address concerns about its adherence (or lack thereof) to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The State Department also raises concerns about Chinese research with pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs) and toxins with dual-use applications. Similarly, there are worries about Iran’s work with PBAs. In August 2020, Russia violated the CWC by deploying a Novichok nerve agent in an attempted assassination of Alexi Navalny. The US also accuses Syria of being in non-compliance with the CWC due to its repeated use of chemical weapons and its failure to fully declare its CW program and destroy chemical agents and munitions. Read the reports here and here.  

Watchdog Group Votes to Punish Syria for Chemical Weapons Use

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the entity tasked with enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), voted to remove the membership rights of Syria, which can no longer cast votes or hold committee positions. This determination is a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. The measure required a two-thirds majority: 87 countries approved the measure, 14 opposed, and 34 abstained. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, weighed in on the measure: “The penalties imposed today are a slap on the wrist compared to the magnitude of Syria’s egregious behavior, [but] they send a strong signal that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.”

Dr. Brian Mazanec Receives the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees

Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program, is among the recipients of the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees. The award recognizes a dozen exceptional public servants for “performing outstanding service in the fields of applied science and engineering, basic science, leadership and management, legal achievement, and social science.” Dr. Mazanec serves as the director responsible for the strategic warfare and intelligence portfolio of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). He has “demonstrated outstanding leadership, innovation, and excellence in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the national security enterprise, particularly the intelligence community, better preparing Congress and agencies to address critical emerging threats and challenges.” Mazanec has led work in intelligence and counterintelligence, counterterrorism, building foreign partner capacity, cybersecurity, and foreign military financing and sales. Congratulations, Dr. Mazanec!

Global Health Security: USAID and CDC Funding, Activities, and Assessments of Countries’ Capacities to Address Infectious Disease Threats before COVID-19 Onset

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its findings of a study about the Global Health Security funds used US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). USAID and the CDC invest in global health security to help other nations build their capacities to deal with infectious diseases. The GAO study found that USAID and the CDC had dispersed roughly $1 billion as of 31 March 2020 for global health security activities. This money went to at least 34 countries, including 25 recognized as partner countries with the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). This support helped build capacity in 17 GHSA partner countries, which helps them address infectious disease threats. Also, by the end of fiscal year 2019, most of those 17 nations possessed some capacity in each of the 11 technical areas, but continued to face various challenges. Read the report here.

‘Building Back Better’ Requires a New Approach to US Science and Technology

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, discusses the need for a new approach to US science and technology (S&T). Over the last several decades, there have been organizational and process changes to the US science and technology enterprise. Such changes include the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as new US leadership in scientific research and development. Gerstein asserts that a makeover – based on a coherent plan – of the US S&T enterprise is needed to improve economic prosperity and national security.

Billions Spent on Coronavirus Fight, But What Happens Next?

Thus far, Congress has allocated billions of dollars to help state and local public health departments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic recedes, these funds may also dry up, leaving many public health departments with meager budgets yet again. Rolling back funding will leave communities – and the nation – unprepared for another health crisis, a lesson we should have learned well from the lingering pandemic. Dr. Mysheika Roberts, a health commissioner in Ohio, points out that more funding is needed consistently, not as a surge once an emergency has already started. According to Trust for America’s Health, money for public health emergency preparedness was cut nearly in half between the 2003 and 2021 fiscal years, accounting for inflation. Democratic US Senator Patty Murray of Washington leads several lawmakers aiming to “end the boom-bust cycle with legislation that would eventually provide $4.5 billion annually in core public health funding.”

How Safe Are You from COVID When You Fly?

A new interactive created by The New York Times details how air circulates in an aircraft. Dr. Nereyda Sevilla, graduate of the GMU Biodefense PhD Program, focused her dissertation on the transmission and risks of airplane-borne infectious diseases. Sevilla’s research analyzed the impact of air travel on the spread of pneumonic plague, a disease with a high mortality rate. Her results indicate that transmission via air travel depends on the type of disease, specifically, its duration of illness. Nereyda makes the following recommendations: (1) expand the definition of close contact on aircraft, (2) require health contact information with all plane tickets purchases, (3) expand self-sanitizing measures, (4) improve travel alerts and advisory notices during the ticket sales process, (5) perform temperature checks on a limited and random basis, and (6) improve crisis communication. Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, points out that passengers may also be exposed to the virus in airport terminals, where crowding makes social distancing quite difficult.

Pandora Report: 4.16.2021

The FDA and CDC recommend a pause on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine due to a rare but severe blood clot. The OPCW’s IIT releases its second report on the chlorine attack on Saraqib in Syria. Russia aims to prevent the OPCW from holding perpetrators accountable for using chemical weapons.

FDA & CDC Urge Pause on Use of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a joint statement recommending a pause on the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine developed and produced by Johnson & Johnson. Thus far, over 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, an adenovirus vector vaccine, have been given. Among those doses, six cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot – a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) – are under investigation, prompting the pause. These six cases have arisen only in women between the ages of 18 and 48 years, and symptoms presented 6-13 days after vaccination. Treatment of a CVST differs from treatment of other types of blood clots, which generally call for heparin, an anticoagulant; heparin may be dangerous in treating a CVST. The CDC convened a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Wednesday to further assess these cases and their possible significance. The FDA is also investigating these rare but severe cases.

The Race for Antiviral Drugs to Beat COVID — and the Next Pandemic

In 2003, several infectious diseases emerged – two lethal influenza strains made the jump from birds to humans in Hong Kong as well as the Netherlands, and a new coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) appeared. These glaring warning flags were heeded by Robert Webster, a leading authority on avian influenza, who urged scientists and policymakers to prepare for the next outbreak by developing and stockpiling medications that target an extensive range of viral pathogens. Webster’s recommendation was unheeded. Webster stated: “The scientific community really should have developed universal antivirals against SARS. Then we would have had something in the stockpile for the emergence of COVID.” Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral, is the creation of the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center (AD3C), a project launched seven years ago and backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Unfortunately, though remdesivir was ready to go when SARS-CoV-2 hit, study findings were inconclusive on its benefits to COVID-19 patients. Additionally, this antiviral is “expensive, difficult to manufacture and must be given intravenously in a hospital — all undesirable attributes in the middle of a pandemic.” Another antiviral studied prior to the pandemic, molnupiravir, is easier to synthesize and is showing promise in shortening the duration of infectiousness among symptomatic COVID-19 cases. The nature of viruses – their compact genomes and lack of cellular anatomy – means they offer few “druggable targets.” According to John Young, Head of Infectious Diseases at Roche Pharma Early Research & Development, the COVID-19 pandemic is a “wake-up call” that industry needs to prepare for the next biological event. To better prepare, new projects have popped up that are dedicated to developing broad-spectrum antivirals for coronaviruses or influenza viruses.

Chemical Weapons in Syria

On 4 February 2018, the town of Saraqib in Syria was attacked with chlorine gas, a toxic chemical weapon banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released its second report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in early February 2018. The report “reiterates its mandate, the legal and practical challenges of its work, and the findings of the investigation focusing on the incident in Saraqib, Syrian Arab Republic, on 4 February 2018.” Additionally, the IIT’s investigation concluded that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that, at approximately 21:22 on 4 February 2018, a military helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force under the control of the Tiger Forces hit eastern Saraqib by dropping at least one cylinder.”

The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) has served as Assad’s “primary means of inflicting violence and suffering on civilians in opposition-held communities.” The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) has identified at least 336 chemical attacks using Sarin and chlorine that have been carried out by Syrian government forces. At least 34,000 Syrians have died from the air attacks dropping barrel bombs and other weapons. Many more have been injured and forced from their homes. Research by GPPI “outlines the Syrian air force’s transformation as a military organization, and offers a thorough account of its current state and operational patterns.”

Last month, the Biodefense Graduate Program hosted an event about the future of chemical weapons arms control. The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. The panelists discussed the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control. Find the recording and presenters’ slides here.

OPCW Member States Must Counter Russian Obstruction

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The OPCW’s Conference of States Parties will resume on 20 April and there is a draft decision pending vote on declaring Syria non-compliant with the CWC. A memorandum published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is the “first publicly available analysis of the voting patterns of the OPCW’s 193 member states.” There are two primary groups of non-cooperative states: one comprised of US adversaries that actively side with Russia and the other comprised of member states that tend to abstain. The group that abstains adds to the difficulty of reaching the threshold of two-thirds of the vote to pass decisions in the Executive Council, a key decision-making body. This analysis assigns 27 member states to the “adverse-voter category” and 38 to the “frequent-abstainer category.” The US maintains positive ties to many of the countries that often abstain. The memo recommends that the US “leverage these relationships to secure votes that uphold the integrity of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the OPCW.” Read the analysis here.

New RFP Includes CBW Topics

The Department of State has released a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) “seeking ambitious, innovative research proposals to address priority science and technology requirements for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament-related monitoring and verification.” This request for proposal (RFP) is from the Key Verification Assets Fund, or V Fund, under State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC). Several of the topics center around chemical and biological weapons: identifying additional measures and reinforcing existing measures to deter chemical weapons use; chemical weapons (CW) forensic and investigative science; promoting measures/existing provisions to increase compliance with and adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention; and promoting and coordinating international capacity-building measures in support of the UN Secretary General’s Mechanism for investigations of alleged use of biological weapons.

Coronavirus Origins: How Unseen Wuhan Research Notes Could Hold the Answers – And Why Lab-Leak Rumours Refuse to Die

After a string of illnesses from an unknown coronavirus began in Wuhan, Dr. Shi Zhengli, Director of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), began to worry that these cases were caused by an escaped virus. Shi’s team performed a genetic analysis of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and found that it did not match any of the stored samples in the WIV laboratory. Shi, nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” is considered the global authority on coronaviruses for her revolutionary research on the origins of the 2002 SARS outbreak, which likely emerged in horseshoe bats. Despite her impressive credentials and expertise, the genetic analysis has not assuaged many worries that the virus escaped WIV. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, cites the Chinese government’s requirement that all COVID-19 related research be approved before publication, which effectively serves as a “gag order” on Chinese scientists. According to Koblentz, “[government censorship] makes it much more difficult to discern how much of the information being provided is legitimate and genuine, and how much of it is part of a broader government-run effort to deflect blame from China and onto other parties for starting the outbreak.” Turning to the investigation into the origins of COVID-19, Koblentz states that the “search should include an independent audit of all labs in Wuhan working on bat coronaviruses and researching SARS.”

Pandora Report: 4.9.2021

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, and Andrew Weber propose a new funding vision for US biodefense. A new interactive, web-based tool will help prevent and control disease outbreaks. An open letter calls for further and more comprehensive inquiries into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

10 + 10 Over 10: A Funding Vision for the US Fight Against Biological Threats

Andrew Weber, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, and Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, propose a new funding vision for the US to fight biological threats. The authors point out that the US must establish “a vision of significant, sustained and stable government funding to drive focused and rapid private sector-developed solutions.” Their 10+10 Over 10 plan proposes that the US dedicate $10 billion per year to the Department of Defense (DOD) and $10 billion per year to Health and Human Services (HHS), all for biodefense-related programs and initiatives. These funding levels should be maintained for 10 years. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the threat of naturally-emerging pathogens with pandemic potential, and spurred a reminder of the weaponizable potential of pathogens. The Biden administration has announced its commitment to tackling natural, accidental, and deliberate biological dangers as a top priority for national security, but this commitment requires adequate resources. The history of biodefense funding tends to include cuts made at critical times in order to fund other defense priorities. To better protect the nation from biological threats, the US must dedicate secure funding towards biodefense activities.

SpillOver

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) debuts a new framework and interactive web tool, SpillOver, which “estimates a risk score for wildlife-origin viruses, creating a comparative risk assessment of viruses with uncharacterized zoonotic spillover potential alongside those already known to be zoonotic.” SpillOver was created because the threat of zoonotic viral threats continues to rise, and “strategies are needed to identify and characterize animal viruses that pose the greatest risk of spillover and spread in humans and inform public health interventions.” The tool was designed using data from 509,721 tested samples of 74,635 animals, then the spillover potential of 887 wildlife viruses were ranked. The SpillOver platform, which is publicly accessible, “can be used by policy makers and health scientists to inform research and public health interventions for prevention and rapid control of disease outbreaks.” It is described as a “living, interactive database” that will be improve over time to better the “quality and public availability of information on viral threats to human health.” Access the SpillOver platform here.

Michael Krug, a graduate of the Biodefense MS program, wrote an article in late 2019 that highlights the critical need for comprehensive and quick biosurveillance tools – like SpillOver – to aid in pandemic preparedness. In November 2019, the decision was made to end USAID’s PREDICT project. PREDICT was established in 2009 to help develop wide-ranging detection capabilities; it was a component of the early-warning system. the project identified 1,200 viruses – including 160 novel coronaviruses – with the potential to induce a pandemic. Beyond identification, the project trained and supported staff across 60 foreign laboratories, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Special Issue of World Medical & Health Policy on Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has held the limelight for the last year, but many other threats continue to strengthen. The latest issue of World Medical and Health Policy is dedicated to one of those powerful threats: climate change. The collection is a call to action for climate scientists, clinicians, activists, scholars of the medical and health humanities, and political scientists. The issue features a wide range of important and diverse research, commentaries, and book reviews. The articles cover climate crises and health inequities; improving the environmental sustainability of the operating room; and energy justice as a climate change and public health solution. Read the ungated issue here.

Calls for Further Inquiries into Coronavirus Origins

An open letter signed by several scientists and science communicators calls for a full investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic – how SARS-CoV-2 emerged and how it jumped into humans. This letter was prompted by the shortcomings of the China-World Health Organization (WHO) joint team’s report from their own investigation. The letter outlines several specific deficiencies in the team’s report: the study prioritized the discovery of a zoonotic origin rather than the full examination of all possible sources; critical records and biological samples that could provide essential insights into pandemic origins remain inaccessible; and different evidentiary standards were used to assess the four origin theories considered in the report. The scientists and science communicators calling for further inquiries provide three recommendations for next steps: (1) revise the existing Terms of Reference between the WHO and China; (2) pass a new World Health Assembly resolution regarding a comprehensive investigation; and (3) establish a parallel international investigation. Read the letter here.

KHN and Guardian US Win Batten Medal for “Lost on the Frontline”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and the Guardian US were awarded the 2021 Batten Medal for Coverage of the Coronavirus Pandemic by the News Leaders Association (NLA). KHN and the Guardian conducted a year-long investigation – “Lost on the Frontline” – aimed at documenting the lives of the over 3,600 healthcare workers in the US who died of COVID-19 contracted on-the-job. “Lost on the Frontline” started with the death of Frank Gabrin, the first emergency room doctor to have perished from COVID-19, in April 2020. The project maintains a database of those lost on the medical frontlines. The Batten Medal is one of the NLA’s highest honors, and it recognizes “coverage of the pandemic that reflects the previously unthinkable challenges that newsrooms had to overcome in the face of this once-in-a-generation crisis.”

Research Indicates Environment is Unlikely to Affect Transmissibility of SARS-COV-2 Variants

According to new research from the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the “deactivating effects of heat and sunlight on SARS-CoV-2…are consistent across different variants of the virus.” This finding suggests that the “increased transmissibility of certain variants is not due to any difference in environmental survivability in aerosols.” The key takeaways from S&T’s research include: decay rates of infectious virus are strongly affected by simulated sunlight, and it seems that decay rates do not vary greatly among currently circulating variants. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick has been studying the effects of environmental conditions on the stability of single isolates of SARS-CoV-2, including isolates from new strains of the novel coronavirus. Scientists have found that “while certain variants may spread faster or be more lethal, they survive similarly in the environment, and therefore differences in transmissibility are likely not due to differences in aerosol stability.”

Chesapeake Bay Biosafety Association (ChABSA)

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association (ChABSA) is an affiliate of the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA), and it encompasses the unique knowledge base found in the Maryland-DC-Virginia region. ChABSA is dedicated to expanding biological safety awareness and reducing the potential for occupational illness and adverse environmental impact from infectious agents or biologically derived materials. ChABSA provides its members with numerous technical biosafety seminars throughout the year, which include local and national biosafety representatives. Student membership to ChABSA is $5 per year, which will also unlock discounts on upcoming seminars, workshops, and symposiums; inclusion on the job board distribution list; and scholarship opportunities for budding biosafety students. On 7-9 June, ChABSA will host a Virtual Scientific Symposium as an opportunity for biosafety and biodefense science students to convene. Register for the Symposium here.  

Pandora Report: 4.2.2021

March 26th marked the 46th anniversary of when the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force. England just launched the UK Health Security Agency to plan for, prevent, and respond to external health threats. On 7 April, the Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a virtual open house to showcase its graduate programs.

Event – Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House

The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting its last virtual open house of the spring semester! This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. The open house is scheduled or 7 April at 6:30 PM EST. Register here.

WHO Report on Pandemic’s Origins

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was written by 17 international experts selected by the WHO and approved by China. The standout conclusion of the report is that it is “extremely unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 leaked out of a Chinese laboratory that was already studying coronaviruses, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).” The report describes four likely scenarios: (1) transmission from an animal reservoir, such as a bat, to another host and then humans; (2) direct spillover into humans from an animal reservoir; (3) spillover from the frozen meat of an infected animal; and (4) a laboratory incident. These four scenarios range from “very likely” to “extremely unlikely,” respectively. Fourteen countries, including the US, have cast their doubts about the report and its veracity based on the lack of data and samples. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, acknowledged that the “experts found it difficult to get raw data and that the report did not gather sufficient evidence from which to garner concrete conclusions.” The report also points out the zoonotic source of SARS-CoV-2 remains unknown and that it is “not possible to determine precisely how humans in China were initially infected with SARS-CoV-2.”

Mason has 8 Graduate Programs Listed Among Top 25 Nationally

Eight graduate programs at George Mason University were listed in the top 25 nationally by the US News & World Report. At the Schar School of Policy and Government, the homeland security and international policy programs were among the top 10 nationally for public universities. Five of the Schar School’s specialties – homeland security, international policy, local government management, public management, and nonprofit management – ranked as the top program in the state and two – homeland security and international policy – ranked in the top five in the country among public institutions. GMU is the largest public research university in Virginia, spanning three campuses in Fairfax, Arlington, and Manassas.

New UK Health Security Agency

On 1 April, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) was established with Dr. Jenny Harries at the helm as the Chief Executive. This new agency will plan for, prevent, and respond to external health threats, including infectious diseases. The UKHSA will be England’s “leader for health security, providing intellectual, scientific and operational leadership at national and local level, as well as on the global stage.” Dr. Harries has served on the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and she played critical roles in England’s responses to COVID-19, Ebola, Zika, monkeypox, MERS, and the Novichok attacks.

BWC Newsletter from UNODA

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) released its latest issue of the BWC newsletter. Last week, on 26 March, marked the 46th anniversary of when the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force. There is a revised schedule for the 2021 BWC meetings: The Meetings of Experts are planned to take place from 30 August to 8 September 2021 and the Meeting of States Parties is planned to take place from 22 to 25 November 2021. All meetings will take place in Geneva, Switzerland. Upcoming BWC activities include the second series of informal webinars for informal discussions and exchanges of views to precede the Meeting of Experts, and the launch of Fiji’s National Preparedness Programme with online training for the Preparation and Submission of Confidence Building Measures under the BWC. Read the latest newsletter here.

CBRN Defence Capabilities Within the Biological Defence Domain Based on COVID-19 Lessons Learned

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how unprepared the world and NATO were to handle a public health emergency of this magnitude, despite improvements in civil and military biodefense as well as emergency management informed by previous pandemics. NATO’s security and resilience are contingent upon the organization and its member states being prepared for future epidemics and pandemics. The Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence (JCBRND Defence COE) introduced a comprehensive report to address chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense capabilities within the biodefense space based on observations, lessons identified, and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. The JCBRN Defence COE intends to provide CBRN expertise and experience to the benefit of the Alliance in prevention, protection, and recovery. In addition, “the JCBRN Defence COE intends to continue to provide operations support to NATO’s current and future crisis efforts; especially with its CBRN reachback, modelling and simulation, and strategic-level and operational-level planning.” See a presentation of the report here.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: A Decade of Atrocities and the Path to a Global Zero Use Policy

More than ten years ago, the people of Syria peacefully protested the government of Bashar al-Assad, which responded with gunfire, arbitrary detentions, and torture. The atrocities continue with the regime’s most horrendous tactic, deploying chemical weapons against Syrian civilians over 300 times. To discuss the history of Syria’s chemical weapons program and the steps the US and the world can take to address the threat of chemical weapons in Syria, Joby Warrick, Washington Post national security reporter and author of the recently published book, Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World, joined FDD experts Anthony Ruggiero, Andrea Stricker, and David Adesnik. The event, hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and its International Organizations Program, provided granular detail on steps the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has taken to hold the Syrian government to account, the obstructionist role the Russian Federation has played, and what the United States and international partners can do to achieve the goal of a global zero chemical weapons use policy in the future. Listen to the event or read the transcript here.

Schar School Students Advance to Final Rounds of Pandemic Controlling Simulation Competition

The NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition is a day-long event that allows graduate students in public policy and related fields to test their skills on real-world data in simulations developed by the Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. This year, five graduate students from the Schar School participated with more than 400 students representing 120 universities from across 30 countries. Three of the five Schar graduate students advanced to the final round! This simulation used data from past pandemics and the current COVID-19 pandemic to paint a situation akin to what the world is experiencing now. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, described the importance of these simulations: “These crisis simulations help students think through the challenges of pandemic response and understand what we need to do today to be better prepared for tomorrow. The simulation also reinforces a key lesson from COVID-19: That pandemics pose threats not just to public health, but to the economy, political stability, and national security.”

Podcast — Episode 22: The Coronavirus as Rubik’s Cube, Part 2

The latest episode of GMU’s Access to Excellence podcast features Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, and Dr. Gregory Washington, President of the university. Their discussion covers public health, public policy, and the false dichotomy between public health and the economy. Listen here.