Army Chemical and Biodefense Training Keeping It Real Despite Being Virtual

By Marisa Tuszl, Biodefense MS Student

As a second-year Biodefense Master’s student at George Mason University (GMU), I was initially interested in taking the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties (MMCBC) course to broaden my knowledge of chemical and biological agents as well as learn about the processes for properly treating patients in a contaminated environment. The MMCBC course presented an opportunity to improve my understanding of what procedures are in place to assist the United States military during biological or chemical emergency situations as well as to learn about current and future medical countermeasures. Since I have an undergraduate degree in Forensic Chemistry, I found the lectures about various chemical agents and the different antidotes and decontamination procedures during field examinations fascinating.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) hosted a virtual version of MMCBC. The week-long program covered a variety of topics from the principles of decontamination and field management to infection control procedures and emerging medical countermeasures. The Army’s video capabilities allowed the live audience to be a part of the demonstrations in the USAMRICD facility and observe the process of casualty assessment and decontamination flow from the hot zone to the cold zone. Another highlight of the training was a triage assessment exercise that gave the participants the opportunity to virtually diagnose and manage the care of a patient infected with an unknown biological agent in real-time. While I was initially concerned that I would be missing out by being limited to a virtual course, MMCBC was a remarkable experience that allowed me to learn from the military’s top experts in the fields of chemical and biological defense.

My favorite part of the course was during day two of the chemical section. Dr. James Madsen (COL, Ret.) opened the day with a chipper demeanor that had the audience eager for his lecture on nerve agents and pretreatment. While Dr. Madsen explained that this was an in-depth presentation on the subject matter, he used helpful symbols, such as orange Pacman, green dots, blue diamonds, pink diamonds, and crowbars, to visually represent how the peripheral nervous system reacts to nerve agents, what ensues in the body during the exposure to these chemicals, and how the antidotes can combat the effects of nerve agents. Thanks to his presentation style, the intense subject matter of the processes going on throughout the human body following exposure to a nerve agent were easily understood. Furthermore, his lecture helped convey more clearly what consequences occur to various parts of the body from these organophosphorus compounds. Beyond the physical signs and symptoms that can be assessed and treated, Dr. Madsen explained how one can intervene before exposure with prophylaxis or pretreatments and after exposure with reactive skin decontamination lotion (RSDL) and thorough decontamination procedures. The information provided by this presentation was insightful and highlighted how observant medical professionals and military personnel must be to identify the correct chemical agent in order to deploy the appropriate countermeasure and prevent additional exposures.

All in all, the MMCBC program supplied me with an outstanding educational experience to learn about chemical and biological defenses and how military and civilian personnel should be prepared to handle chemical and biological incidents. This course was beneficial in providing myself and the other participants with the tools and guidance on how to identify the symptoms of different chemical and biological agents, provide the appropriate decontamination and medical care, and evaluate the available treatments or antidotes. In addition to this course, individuals can take other courses by USAMRIID and USAMRICD such as Field Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties (FCBC) and Hospital Management of Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear & Explosive (HM-CBRNE) Incidents.  I look forward to learning even more from USAMRIID and USAMRICD experts during the virtual HM-CBRNE course in January and eventually FCBC once in-person courses resume.

Marisa Tuszl is working towards her Master’s in Biodefense at George Mason University. She was a forensic chemist for three years after graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 2016. Her interests include weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and healthcare response/resilience.

MMBC Lives Up to Reputation as the “Gold Standard” for Chemical and Biological Defense Training

By Ishaan Sandhu, Biodefense MS Student

As a student in the Biodefense MS Program, the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties (MMCBC) course appealed to me because it offered “real-world” insights into the materials covered by the Biodefense program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. The interdisciplinary nature of biodefense requires the consideration of different perspectives, especially the military’s viewpoint. I must acknowledge the simple “wow-factor” of being able to attend a specialized military learning experience that is considered the “gold standard” in chemical and biological defense training by the Government Accountability Office. This was an opportunity I simply couldn’t miss.

The MMCBC course was extremely thorough and concise in its teachings. The beauty of the course was in its organizational structure and high degree of engagement. Both the chemical and biological sections started with foundational knowledge on the principles for the medical management of casualties. From there, we learned about the various threat agents and their mechanisms of actions, symptom presentation, dose effects, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and operational implications. The predominantly military speakers always discussed the potential differences and similarities in medical management for military and civilian practitioners. While agent delivery systems and command structures primarily catered to the needs of the military, specific considerations, such as maintaining a warfighter’s operational capacity, could be applied to civilian first responders after a chemical or biological incident.

Other lectures focused on medical countermeasures (MCMs), decontamination, and triage. Currently available MCMs were covered as well as the processes of developing new ones. MCM development was something several Biodefense classes I’ve taken at the Schar School covered, but it was interesting to learn about this subject from a military perspective with additional strategic considerations. Decontamination, which was another topic I had briefly learned about previously, was covered in greater detail during this training. New variables to consider, such as site security and operational tempo, were discussed and explained. Similarly, the lectures on triage introduced new considerations such as conducting triage in the field versus at a civilian location.

One key feature of the course was the frequent callbacks or references to previous lectures. Specific classes focused on PPE and chemical defense equipment, but were referenced and contextualized when discussing specific agents. Video simulations, instructor demonstrations, and hypothetical scenarios supplemented lecture information. Samples of triage and casualty cards were given to us and used to demonstrate triage and clinical care processes. Case studies tested our ability to distinguish between different agents and apply the principles of medical management. Consistently relating information between the classes reinforced and tested our understanding of the knowledge presented.

Overall, the MMCBC course was an invaluable learning experience that reinforced my academic knowledge and offered new perspectives on biodefense strategies. The course, which catered to both military and civilian students, will serve me well no matter what career path I choose. Despite being held virtually, the course and its instructors were still successful in covering all aspects of the medical management of chemical and biological casualties. The inability to attend in-person did not impact the course’s effectiveness, although I am disappointed that I was not able to participate in hands-on demonstrations. Putting on MOPP (mission-oriented protective posture) level 4 gear and watching military working dogs in a mock CBRNE environment would have been the highlight of my semester.

Ishaan Sandhu is a graduate student in the Biodefense Master’s program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Since graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry in 2017, he has been conducting clinical research, although he is currently transitioning towards security studies. His interests include national biodefense policy and strategy, as well as intelligence analysis.  

Importance of Mental Health in Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties

By Madeline Roty, Biodefense MS Student

In March 2020, I was supposed to attend the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties (MMCBC) course sponsored by the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD). These plans were foiled by the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the Army to pause its in-residence courses: it would be rather ironic if an outbreak of COVID-19 occurred at a course on how to manage biological casualties. Fortunately, USAMRIID and USAMRICD were able to adapt the training and transition to a virtual format which I attended in October 2020. 

Though we were not able to don and doff personal protective equipment (PPE), simulate atropine injections to treat a nerve agent attack, or engage in other hands-on opportunities, being in a virtual setting did not reduce our access to some of the world’s leading experts on chemical and biological threats. An incredible amount of information was covered in six surprisingly short days. The first three days focused on chemical threats, and the remaining three days focused on biological threats. Topics included the history of chemical and biological warfare, specific chemical agents and pathogens, treatments, decontamination, triage, epidemiology, and even care for military working dogs. Case studies and patient scenarios allowed us to put our knowledge to the test by making presumptive diagnoses, triaging and prioritizing our patients for decontamination and evacuation, and determining how we would treat the presenting patient. My background is nursing, which made understanding some of the content easier, but in my four years of nursing school, we only scratched the surface of the content delivered in these six days. I now have the knowledge to go into the field and confidently assess a victim of a mustard gas attack or identify patients presenting with symptoms of inhalational anthrax. Much of the information covered in the biological portion of the training was familiar to me from my biodefense courses at George Mason, but it was a great opportunity to apply my knowledge and to learn more about the Department of Defense’s role in biodefense. 

One of my favorite lessons was given by Dr. Ross Pastel on the “Psychological Effects of Biowarfare.” I have a particular interest in the psychological effects of disease outbreaks on health care workers, so I was thrilled to see that the Department of Defense includes behavioral health in its educational courses and planning for biological events. The most important points that Dr. Pastel expounded on were the difference between risk and the perception of risk, the expectation of psychological casualties during chemical and biological events, and the acknowledgment that the psychological effects of hazardous conditions are real.

For experts, risk is “simply” calculated by multiplying the hazard by the amount of exposure to it and its consequences. For the layperson, risk is more subjective; it is the product of the hazard and the person’s perception of the hazard. Perception can be influenced by factors like uncertainty of exposure to the hazard, limited knowledge, experience, and controllability of the hazard. Why is this distinction important? Perception of risk contributes to a person’s psychological reaction, even if the perceived risk is greater than the actual risk. Even in the absence of a true threat, the perception of a threat can still exist and result in psychological casualties.

During World War II, the proportion of combat stress casualties to wounded in action was about 1:4. Data from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which troops feared potential exposure to chemical agents from smoke plumes following the destruction of Iraqi sites, showed that the proportion of combat stress casualties to wounded in action was 3:1. (In reality, only a small percentage of concerned troops were actually confirmed to have been exposed to chemical agents. The known exposure was accidental and resulted from the post-war demolition of Iraqi chemical rockets.) This extreme inversion suggests that more psychological casualties should be expected during a chemical or biological attack than from a traditional attack. Similar findings have been found beyond the battlefield. Health care workers have reported that they were more unwilling to report to work during a biological threat, like the SARS pandemic, than to any other disasters, like snow storms or mass casualty events. Characteristics of biological weapons, like the invisibility of the agent and lack of experience with these threats, increases the perception of risk and contributes to the higher number of acute psychological effects.  

When thinking about planning for catastrophes, including chemical or biological attacks, many discuss the “worried well.” Worried well is an inaccurate term that diminishes the genuine psychological impact chemical and biological attacks can have, preserving the stigma associated with mental health diagnoses and treatment. Psychological symptoms are real, and they can be painful. Furthermore, symptoms of anxiety and fear can manifest with the vague, similar symptomology of some biological or chemical agents including nausea, dizziness, and difficulty breathing. While most psychological effects are acute, long-term effects can include burn-out and job change, alcohol and drug misuse, family disturbances, domestic violence, and chronic medical issues including depression and PTSD.

This lesson is particularly important in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Health care workers are overworked, understaffed, and stressed. Exposure to the media covering pandemic news is constant, which could increase incidents of post-traumatic stress symptomology. It is important to note that experiencing symptomatology is not the same as having the disorder, but it is still painful and unhealthy. As we try to respond to the pandemic by taking actions to protect and/or improve the physical health of patients, workers, and the public, mental health cannot be neglected.

MMCBC was an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone interested in the fields of chemical and biological weapons. While I hope I never have to use my new knowledge, I am very glad to have it. The instructors and staff deserve a big thank you for making this course possible during these unconventional times. I am particularly appreciative of Dr. Pastel for bringing much-needed attention to the importance of mental health and acknowledging that psychological effects following exposure to hazardous conditions are real and need to be addressed, not dismissed.

Madeline Roty is working towards her Master’s in Biodefense at George Mason University. She became a registered nurse after graduating from the University of Michigan School of Nursing in 2019. Her interests include public and nursing education about mass casualty events and the role of culture on decision-making.

Learning to Identify Suspicious Outbreaks

By Deborah Cohen, Biodefense Certificate Student

The Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties (MMCBC) course is densely packed with usable and actionable training for battlefield incidents caused by chemical and biological attacks. The strategies for assessing events and responding could well extend to civilian situations, which may occur adjacent to military operations or even on the home front far from the typical war zone. 

I was compelled to take the course for a few reasons. As a longtime resident of Maryland, I have always had a curiosity about the activities of the two Army facilities in my state – Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG). My interest in geopolitical affairs has coincided with the progression of the institutional missions of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) at APG. Through the MMCBC practicum, I hoped to gain further insight into the culture and structure of our programs to prepare for and respond to chemical and biological threats. This training promised to be highly relevant and serve as a reinforcement to my studies in the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School as well. It certainly delivered on that promise.

Normally, the chemical instruction portion of the course is held at APG and the biological portion is held at Fort Detrick. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, my enthusiastic classmates from the Biodefense program and I attended all of the sessions virtually. That was the only disappointment during the week-long course. Though it would have been preferable to meet instructors and military personnel in-person at the facilities and we were not able to gain the hands-on experience with supplies like antidote kits and protective gear, these drawbacks were partially compensated for by video simulations and demonstrations. Army flexibility showed through under these special circumstances caused by the pandemic. That said, if given the chance, I would really like to practice donning and doffing protective gear.

The MMCBC training is very comprehensive and well organized. A cross section of topics included identifying the causative agents that can affect warriors in the field, nerve agents, the how-to’s of triage and evacuation, and foodborne incidents. All of the topics were fascinating as the instructors made each topic thematically overlap with the next. One of the most interesting units was “Epidemiology of Biological Terrorism” presented by Captain Benjamin Pierson.  Many of the MMCBC presentations elucidated the use of “clues” to diagnose an illness or injury in the context of the subject being a victim of an intentional biological or chemical attack. CPT Pierson’s presentation tied a lot of these clues together for me.   

CPT Pierson demonstrated how an 11-point BW assessment tool integrated with a commonly used public health 10-step epidemiological outbreak investigation could help differentiate between natural and deliberate disease outbreaks.  Among the clues used in this type of investigation are the time frame of the outbreak, locations of the cases, and the size of the outbreak.  Clues pointing to a deliberate outbreak are a higher than expected number of cases or highly unusual circumstances such as a higher fatality rate or the emergence of unexpected diseases.  Simultaneous outbreaks of the same disease in different locations or a rapid succession of outbreaks can also point to deliberate schemes.  Many biological warfare agents of concern are zoonotic agents that can cause disease in humans and animals. The presence of dead animals, simultaneous infections of humans or animals, reverse zoonosis in which humans infect animals, or the rapid spread of an infection during a very condensed time period could indicate a suspicious outbreak. Finally, of course, there can be direct evidence of a deliberate attack such as a letter filled with Bacillus anthracis spores.

I learned from CPT Pierson that the key to a successful investigation to characterize an outbreak as either naturally-occurring or deliberately caused is for the investigators to maintain an “Index of Suspicion” throughout the process.  The “Index of Suspicion” refers to the likelihood that a patient’s symptoms and circumstances will lead to a particular disease diagnosis.  To be on the lookout for intentional attacks, investigators or clinicians would be well served to have a heightened level of awareness of the signs and symptoms associated with the effects of a biological or chemical attack. Approaching an epidemiological investigation with a “BW Index of Suspicion” tuned to the possibility of deliberately caused events can result in a more rapid assessment and response.       

While we can debate the probabilities of a biological or chemical attack occurring on the battlefield or in a civilian setting, what is not debatable are the consequences of such an attack.  A chemical or biological attack on military or civilian personnel could inflict a horrible toll.  These weapons present practitioners of chemical and biological defense with a constellation of problems.  While the MMCBC training is focused on providing insights into pragmatic military tactical solutions to these threats, sharing these solutions with civilian responders reinforces the need for all stakeholders to participate in rapid detection and response should an attack occur.  The Army’s commitment to chemical and biological defense is exemplary and I am highly appreciative that they offer this practical training to civilian biodefense practitioners.

Deborah Cohen will complete the Graduate Certificate program in Biodefense at George Mason University in 2021. In her current role at SGS North America, she provides assessments and lab testing services for biological, chemical and environmental hazards to customers in agri-food, consumer products and infrastructure businesses across the globe.  Her focus includes biothreats risk analysis and management and technological innovations for threat detection and prevention.

Pandora Report: 11.20.2020

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

Thanksgiving in COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

Watch a recording of this event here.

The slide decks from our panelists are available here.

COVID-19 Update

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

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

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

Schar School Power Lunch Recap: Facing the Challenges of Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

SARS-CoV-2 Origins

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

Diagnostics for Biodefense: Flying Blind with No Plan to Land

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

Journal Highlights Groundbreaking S&T Research on Chlorine Spread

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

Coronavirus: Germany Hails Couch Potatoes in New Videos

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

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

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

WWDFD?

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

Pandora Report: 11.13.2020

The Pandora Report thanks veterans of the US military for their service! As the country awaits Biden’s presidency, a number of concerns arise regarding the remainder of the Trump administration as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden has already named 13 health experts to his COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board. Join the Biodefense Graduate Program for a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how to restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Friday the 13th

Jason Voorhees, the fictitious killer in the “Friday the 13th” slasher movies and comic series, is the star of a new advertising campaign aimed at encouraging mask-wearing to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. In it, he points out that even though masks may be scary, “not wearing one can be deadly.” Watch Jason’s PSA here.  

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

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

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

Biden Names 13 Health Experts To COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board

As infections continue to surge, president-elect Joe Biden has named 13 health experts to his Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. The board will be co-chaired by three people: Dr. David Kessler of the University of California, San Francisco and former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner; Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General; and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale University. In a statement on Monday, Biden said, “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations.” Biden acknowledged that the ongoing pandemic is one of the greatest challenges that his administration must tackle, and he has committed to being “informed by science and by experts.” The board will also include Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA); Luciana Borio, a biodefense and disease specialist who has worked for the National Security Council; and Eric Goosby, the UN Special Envoy on Tuberculosis and former United States Global AIDS Coordinator.

Counties with Worst Virus Surges Overwhelmingly Voted Trump

An analysis conducted by the Associated Press (AP) found that nearly all (93%) of the 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita went for Trump in the recent election. Most were rural counties in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin. Lower rates of adherence to mandates for mask-wearing and social distancing tend to be seen in rural areas. Given this trend, state health officials are pausing to contemplate how to reframe their messaging to improve compliance in communities resisting the public health measures for COVID-19. According to AP VoteCast, 36% of Trump voters described the pandemic as completely or mostly under control, and 47% said it was somewhat under control. In contrast, 82% of Biden voters said the pandemic is not at all under control.

‘It’s going to be very, very scary’: Before Biden Takes Office, a Precarious 10 Weeks for Escalating COVID-19 Crisis

Dr. Saskia Popescu, a Term Assistant Professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program, shared her worries that the Trump administration will assume a scorched-earth approach in response to losing the election to Joe Biden. She says, “it’s going to be very, very scary.” A number of public health experts fear for the crisis that the election results may incite: a transition period of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and deaths. Election week saw record high numbers of cases, even as Trump downplayed the pandemic. Though it is not the convention to publicly challenge the outgoing president on basic matters of governance until the president-elect’s inauguration, Biden’s health care advisers are already reaching out to mayors and governors. Biden’s team is also already planning for a transition of power at health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But until Inauguration Day, Biden lacks the formal power to institute mask mandates, affect the manufacture of protective equipment for medical workers, or impact COVID-19 testing. Until then, Biden and his incoming administration are taking a public-facing role to encourage caution and compliance with public health guidelines.

America’s Poised for a 180-Degree Turn on Climate Change with a Biden Victory

The incoming Biden administration aims to shift the US away from fossil fuels and expand protections for public lands, but these efforts will face serious opposition from the Senate GOP. Biden is expected to “restore dozens of environmental safeguards President Trump abolished and launch the boldest climate change plan of any president in history.” Despite the anticipated pushback from Senate Republicans and conservative attorneys general, Biden plans to make a 180-degree turn on climate change and conservation policy in the US. Indeed, he identified climate change as one of his top presidential priorities, and plans to “restrict oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters; ratchet up federal mileage standards for cars and SUVs; block pipelines that transport fossil fuels across the country; provide federal incentives to develop renewable power; and mobilize other nations to make deeper cuts in their own carbon emissions.”

Upcoming Event – Outreach 2.0: Emerging Technologies and Effective Outreach Practices

The Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) is hosting an event, “Outreach 2.0: Emerging Technologies and Effective Outreach Practices,” sponsored by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). The event will feature discussion on emerging technology outreach challenges as well as outreach tools and good practices to raise awareness among private sector stakeholders in industry, research, and academia. The speakers, Scott Jones and Andrea Viski of STRI, will present an advanced outreach model – Outreach 2.0 – built on input from international stakeholders from the public and private sectors. Andrea Viski is also an Adjunct Professor in the Schar School’s Master’s in International Commerce and Policy program. During the event, the speakers will introduce Outreach 2.0 and conduct an exchange with three renowned discussants: Todd Perry of the US Department of State; Katherine Wyslocky of Public Safety Canada; and Kevin Cuddy of IBM. Sign up here.

Lessons from the Roosevelt: A Call for Improving the US Navy’s Preparedness for Biological Threats

Lt. Cmdr. Brian L. Pike, leader of the Navy unit that detected the first cases of COVID-19 onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, published a commentary in War on the Rocks about important lessons to be learned from the outbreak of COVID-19 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt. In late March, SARS-CoV-2 snuck aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt to infect its sailors. Kasper et al. assesses the COVID-19 outbreak on the aircraft carrier, finding that SARS-CoV-2 spread quickly among the crew. Given the confined work environment of Navy ships, an outbreak is devastating to the crew and operations. Indeed, on the Teddy Roosevelt, 25% of the crew was ultimately infected, one sailor died, and the ship was forced out of operation for 10 weeks. Pike and Koblentz recommend mitigating the fleet’s vulnerabilities to biological threats of the future and enhancing the Navy’s shipboard capabilities. If an infectious disease cannot be contained and managed, then the advantages of early detection are lost. The authors encourage a comprehensive review of the Navy’s response procedures as an important step for ensuring that it is prepared to mitigate future biological threats.

North Korea and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Evidence

North Korea’s announcement that it is working on a COVID-19 vaccine has revived attention on Pyongyang’s ostensible biological weapons (BW) program. The Stimson Center released a report, North Korea and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Evidence, which reviews the public statements from the United states and South Korea regarding the suspected program. These two nations have the greatest security interests on the Korean Peninsula. The report also examines the policy responses adopted by the two governments and whether those actions have been consistent with concerns that North Korea has an advanced BW program. Five themes emerge from this review: (1) the US government uses several terms to discuss the possibility of BWs that are highly ambiguous; (2) there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding the specifics of North Korea’s suspected BW program; (3) public assessments between the US and South Korea are inconsistent; (4) some assessments into the North Korean BW issue between government agencies have been contradictory; and (5) the US government possesses fragmented insight into North Korea’s BW capabilities and intentions.

73rd World Health Assembly

The 73rd Session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), is ongoing in a virtual format. Unsurprisingly, one of the major topics of the WHA is charting the course for the COVID-19 response and setting global health priorities. Many nations and cities have successfully prevented and controlled transmission of SARS-CoV-2 with comprehensive and evidence-based approaches. Other nations and areas are still struggling to achieve the same results, but the WHO maintains that we can beat COVID-19 with science, solutions, and solidarity. The WHA is also covering the critical health goals that cannot be allowed to backslide amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that health is foundational to social, economic, and political stability, session will discuss a 10-year plan for addressing neglected tropical diseases, as well as efforts to address meningitis, epilepsy and other neurological disorders, maternal infant and young child nutrition, digital health, and the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel.

Last week, an oversight panel called for reforms to the WHO that encompasses “predictable and flexible funding and setting up a multi-tiered system to warn countries earlier about disease outbreaks before they escalate.” A “significant discrepancy between member states’ financial contributions and their expectations” of WHO’s Emergency Programme was found, raising concerns. In regard to declaring a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), COVID-19 raised concerns that the one-level system is inadequate, with experts recommending a graded system with clear criteria.

The CDC Chief Lost His Way During COVID-19. Now His Agency Is in the Balance.

Former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Richard Besser said, “The integrity of the agency has been compromised. That falls to the director of CDC.” In a letter sent in September, Dr. William Foege, a former CDC director, encouraged Dr. Robert Redfield, the current director of the CDC, to orchestrate his own firing. Records show that Redfield pressured local health officers to grant favors to politicians and businesses and he allowed political appointees outside of the CDC to draft and publish information on the agency’s website, regardless of the objections from his top scientists and without technical review. USA TODAY interviewed dozens of current and former colleagues of Redfield; interviewees included his supporters and critics. One of the interviewed officials stated that agency employees felt like they had no choice but to publish the school reopening guidelines in August, which were revised by the White House. CDC staff has largely lost respect for their leader and recent CDC employee surveys show that morale has fallen severely. CDC employees indicated that they view the White House Coronavirus Task Force as a “black box, where the agency’s guidance goes in one way and mysteriously comes out another.” In fact, Redfield is typically in the meetings held by the task force, but without his deputies or subject matter experts. The ongoing crisis at the CDC occurring parallel to the pandemic is eroding trust as the outputs of the agency are increasingly questioned.

Mobility Network Models of COVID-19 Explain Inequities and Inform Reopening

A new article in Nature uses mobility network models to simulate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to explain inequities and inform reopening activities. The authors introduce a metapopulation Susceptible-Exposed-Infective-Recovered (SEIR) epidemiological model to simulate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in 10 of the largest US metropolitan statistical areas. Using cell phone data, the mobility networks map the hourly movements of 98 million people from neighborhoods to points of interests like restaurants and religious facilities. Using these integrated networks, this research shows that a relatively simple SEIR model is able to accurately fit the trajectory of real cases. Their model predicts that a small minority of points of interest served as “superspreader” sites, accounting for a majority of infections. This finding supports the notion of restricting maximum occupancy at these types of sites is more effective than uniformly reducing mobility. Their model also accurately predicts higher rates of infection within disadvantaged racial and socioeconomic groups based on differences in mobility. The authors found that members of disadvantaged groups have not been able to reduce mobility as significantly and that the points of interest they visit tend to be more crowded, thus higher risk.

AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards

This year, the Kavli Science Journalism Award administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) celebrates its 75th year! Since 1945, the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards have honored professional journalists for distinguished reporting on the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winners include six submissions featuring notable explanatory and investigative reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Lauren Weber, Laura Ungar, Hannah Recht, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Michelle R. Smith from Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press won the Gold Award for Science Reporting – Large Outlet with “Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus.” Sarah Kaplan from The Washington Post won the Silver Award for “The Storm Inside.” Ed Yong from The Atlantic won the Gold Award for Science Reporting – In Depth with “How the Pandemic Will End,” “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing,” and “America’s Patchwork Pandemic Is Fraying Even Further.” Joss Fong, Áron Filkey and Joey Sendaydiego from Vox won the Silver Award for Video Spot News/Feature Reporting with “How Covid-19 can be more and less deadly than we knew.”  Wendy Zukerman, Rose Rimler, Meryl Horn, Michelle Dang and Blythe Terrell of the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet Media won the Gold Award for Audio with “Coronavirus: Will Chloroquine Save Us,” “Coronavirus: Was It Made In a Lab,” and “Coronavirus: How Many Silent Spreaders Are There?” Yunanto Utomo, Gregorius Jovinto, Bayu Adi Prakoso, Anggara Kusumaatmaja and Haman Hama from Kompas.com (Indonesia) won the Silver Award for Children’s Science News with “Virion: A Tale of Coronavirus for Old School Comic Fans,” “Virion: A Tale of Coronavirus for Old School Comic Fans – Part 2,” and “Virion: An Interactive Quest to Find Covid-19 Vaccine.”

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

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

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

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

Driven to Extremes: Vehicle Ramming as a Terrorist Tactic

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

On Halloween 2017, a horrific terrorist attack took place in New York City. Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old man inspired by the Islamic State, drove a rented pickup truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson River. After crashing into a school bus, he got out of the truck and began chasing after pedestrians with two guns – later determined to be a paintball gun and a pellet gun. This attack killed 8 and wounded 11, the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since September 11. Vehicle ramming attacks are brutal, effective, and hard to anticipate or defend against.

In this article, the term “vehicle ramming attacks” (hereafter, VRAs) encompasses any terrorist attack that utilizes the kinetic force of a vehicle to strike its target. This excludes vehicle-borne explosive devices. Some data sets use a broader definition of “vehicle” than I will use here. For example, the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database considers the September 11th attacks an example of a VRA because the kinetic force of an airplane was used against several targets. This article examines attacks with land vehicles, such as cars, trucks, tractors, and buses, in order to understand how extremists with limited means can still perpetrate a devastating attack with relatively few resources.

The publicly available information from the Global Terrorism Database contains records of VRAs from 1970 through 2018. Because the scope of this analysis is limited to attacks with land vehicles, records that involved planes and helicopters were eliminated, leaving a total of 146 incidents. The charts below show key trends in the number of attacks over time, as well as perpetrators and locations.

VRAs were a relatively rare occurrence from 1970 to 2013. The first spike in VRAs took place in Israel and the West Bank from 2014-2015, followed by a second spike with origins in North America and Western Europe in 2016. The 2014-2015 spike can be attributed to a larger “wave of terror,” where a combination of deteriorating economic conditions and setbacks in Israel-Palestine peace negotiations led to a sharp increase in attacks by Palestinians against Israeli targets. A trend toward unsophisticated tactics and weapons led to a rise in vehicular attacks, perpetrated by individuals motivated by a nationalist struggle.

The second spike captured by the Global Terrorism Database can be attributed mainly to jihadists, particularly those claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. References to vehicle ramming attacks can be found in jihadist sources going back, at least, to 2010, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called on supporters via their magazine Inspireto use this tactic. However, such attacks were sporadic until the Islamic State began losing territory and encouraging its supporters to conduct retaliatory strikes in Western countries. The first attack in this vein was the 2016 attack in Nice, France, which killed 12 and wounded 67. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for this attack and used it as an example for what its followers could achieve. This attack kicked off a wave of similar attacks in countries around the world, including the United States, Sweden, Austria, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Several researchers have suggested that vehicle ramming as a tactic has spread like a virus, largely through media and social media networks: “the coverage of VRAs in the media and in online discussion forums on websites has encouraged others, often with wholly different political and religious motives, to engage in VRAs.” This theory may explain why jihadists were responsible for the second spike of VRAs across North America and Western Europe in 2015, and why white supremacists and other far-right extremists in the US have shown increasing interest in the tactic since 2017.

In 2017, white supremacist James Fields drove into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one. This incident was a harbinger of vehicle-based violence against protestors in the United States. Ari Weil, a researcher with the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, has found at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests in the United States from May 27 (the start of protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s death) through September 5. While all these actions have targeted anti-racism protestors, the motivations of the perpetrators differ from case to case, and more will become known as these cases are investigated and prosecuted. The image below presents a meme that circulated widely across Facebook in favor of these attacks against protestors.

Using a vehicle as a kinetic weapon has several key advantages that will continue to be attractive to violent extremists. First, vehicles are more accessible than numerous other types of weapons – many people own a vehicle or can easily rent one. There is no assembly require, unlike with vehicle-borne explosives, where the bomb must be manufactured and the vehicle may need to be modified. Additionally, no special expertise is required other than the ability to operate the car, and generally the attack can be carried out with little expense. These features make vehicles particularly appealing to lone-actor terrorists, who can easily carry out such an attack on their own. Vehicles are also chosen because they are effective, both in casualties and psychological impact. Several VRAs recorded in the Global Terrorism Database caused double-digit fatalities, and in one case over 100 people were injured. A final attractive aspect of VRAs is that they allow for follow-up attacks. In several cases, after the vehicle was driven into its target, the perpetrator exited the vehicle with another weapon and attacked the crowd.

Defending against VRAs is difficult. Vehicles are highly accessible and used by millions of people every day. Additionally, there are generally very few indicators that someone is planning to commit a VRA. More complex terrorist attacks tend to have multiple points of interception – perpetrators discussing the attacks online, conducting surveillance, or making purchases of suspicious materials. But VRAs are generally conducted by a single person, with little forewarning and little opportunity to interdict the attack. Therefore, risk mitigation tends to focus on hardening security by identifying likely targets and adding barriers and additional security personnel.

Pandora Report: 11.6.2020

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

Driven to Extremes: Vehicle Ramming as a Terrorist Tactic

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

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

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

Election Excitement

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

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

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

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

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

Priorities for the Next President to Reduce Biological Threats

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

Pandemic Priorities for the 117th Congress

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

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

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

3 November Was One Health Day!

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

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

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

Climate Change Catastrophe

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

Biosecurity: The Importance of Digital Information Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 10.30.2020

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

Recent Congressional Testimony: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

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

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

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

Tips for Trick or Treating and Other Halloween Activities

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

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

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

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

A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature Versus the Laboratory

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

The Costs of Ransomware Attacks on Hospitals

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

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

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

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

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

Scientists Develop a Potential Antibiotic from Komodo Dragon Blood

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

Human Embryo Genome Editing: The Debate Continues

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

Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security

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

$275 Million Commitment to Brew Better Molecules for Manufacturing

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

State Department: Reducing Revisionist State Biological and Chemical Weapons Threats

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

Keep Focus on Emerging Infections, Disease X: Analysts

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

COVID‐19 and the Boundaries of Open Science and Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary – Recent Congressional Testimony: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

As we gleaned very little useful information from the most recent presidential debate, it is worth taking a look at a more serious forum to understand how the US government perceives today’s most pressing threats. On September 17th, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified about “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland” to the House Committee on Homeland Security. Wray acknowledges the “unique and unprecedented challenges” brought about by COVID-19, as well as important “aggressive and sophisticated threats on many fronts,” but in his opening statement he focuses on five main topics: cyber, China, lawful access, election security, and counterterrorism. This article reviews the FBI Director’s depiction of these topics and provides additional characterizations of them, based on recent reports, legislation, and strategic guidance.

Wray discussed a “diverse array of threats from [US] cyber adversaries,” including state-sponsored cyber intrusions, economic espionage, and the increasing sophistication of cyber-crime. While Wray highlights ongoing work on cyber issues, he can only hope that these efforts will be enough before “we have some truly apocalyptic cyber crisis.” The Trump administration released a National Cyber Strategy in 2018, containing four pillars: protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence. These are the exact same pillars as the National Security Strategy released in 2017, tailored to address the cyber realm. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last month finding that since the National Cyber Strategy’s release, “it is still unclear which executive branch official is ultimately responsible for not only coordinating implementing of the strategy, but also holding federal agencies accountable once activities are implemented” (GAO-20-629). The constant jostling within federal agencies to determine who is ultimately responsible for emerging, high-priority threats is not a new theme. In just one relevant and timely example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General recently found that DHS is failing to coordinate efforts to defend against terrorism aimed at food, agriculture, and veterinary systems. The root cause? The DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) is directed, via the Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act, to carry out the relevant program, but CWMD believes the DHS Secretary has not clearly delineated this authority to CWMD. Whether it is agroterrorism, cybersecurity, biotechnology, unmanned aerial systems, or the host of other fast-emerging threats the US faces, federal agencies need to improve their ability to absorb and act on a newly-assigned mission.

Wray also argues that “the greatest long-term threat to [the US’s] information and intellectual property and…economic vitality is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China.” Understanding and countering this threat has become increasingly important in the wake of a Department of Justice indictment that found the Chinese government has sponsored hackers to target, in part, US labs working on COVID-19 vaccine research. Though the indictment is from July 2020, the two men had been involved in illicit cyber activities for more than a decade, targeting a wide range of industries in multiple countries. They most commonly targeted the high-tech manufacturing, engineering, software, pharmaceutical, and defense industries. Yet even as the US needs to take a firm stance on a host of issues related to China, the need to cooperate on issues such as biosecurity and infectious disease has never been greater. Rather than pulling out of international institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the US should leverage international partnerships to increase transparency on health security issues and bring multilateral pressure to bear where appropriate.

A third issue of concern to Wray is lawful access, which refers to law enforcement’s inability to access data that utilizes end-to-end encryption, even with a warrant or court order. The Department of Justice and FBI have argued for years that this inability to access encrypted communications has led to a “decline in [law enforcement’s] ability to gain access to the content of both domestic and international terrorist communications.” Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) even introduced Senate Bill 4051, the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to access encrypted data. The bill was introduced in June 2020 and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, where it now sits. Opponents of bills like this argue that the characterization of the issue as a balance between privacy and security is disingenuous, and, in fact, private, encrypted communications are a matter of security. Strong encryption serves many security functions: preventing cyber intrusions into critical services, protecting financial and health information from cyber criminals, and keeping constitutionally protected speech safe from abuses of power. An additional argument against lawful access is practical: if law enforcement is granted a way around encryption, that method will eventually be identified by nefarious cyber actors and exploited.

A fourth issue the Committee expressed great interest in is election security. The lead organization for election security is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA, formerly NPPD) within DHS. Wray characterized the FBI’s role as “working closely with…federal, state, and local partners, as well as the private sector, to share information, bolster security, and identify and disrupt any threats.” In a recent example of this collaboration, the FBI has worked with Facebook and Twitter to remove accounts created as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. In his testimony, Wray confirmed that Russia is primarily trying to influence the 2020 election through “malign foreign influence,” with fewer attempts to target election infrastructure than were seen in 2016. Russia is not the only actor targeting US elections; the National Counterintelligence Security Center Director recently stated that China and Iran were similarly looking to influence the election.

The FBI also recently issued guidance for the public on combating foreign influence in the election. This guidance focuses on applying critical thinking to information you see online before sharing it—by considering where information comes from and who is posting it and why before sharing that information. Additionally, in 2017, the FBI stood up the Foreign Influence Task Force to “counteract malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States.” The Task Force’s mission is to increase communication and coordination within the FBI and with its partners, through investigations and operations, information and intelligence sharing, and relationships with the private sector.

The final topic, and that which consumed most of Wray’s testimony before the Committee, was on counterterrorism. According to Wray, the greatest terrorist threat to the US today comes from “lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” The FBI distinguishes between two groups within this threat space: (1) domestic violent extremists (DVEs), whose ideological goals stem from domestic influences (e.g., racial bias, anti-government sentiment) and (2) homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), who are radicalized in the US but inspired ideologically by foreign terrorist organizations (e.g., the Islamic State). Wray points out that 2019 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. The top threat from DVEs comes from what the FBI calls racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists, or RMVEs. While this moniker can apply to any flavor of racially or ethnically motivated extremism, in practice the threat is largely emanating from white supremacist ideologies. Though Wray provided clear and measured statements during the hearing, politicians’ grandstanding and attempts to score political points on this issue underscored how leaders’ rhetoric can only serve to inflame the issue of domestic violent extremism.