Pandora Report: 4.22.2022

This week we discuss the CDC’s new pandemic “weather service”, the growing impacts of Shanghai’s ongoing lockdown, and the spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in the US and around the world. We also cover a couple of great new publications and have listed several upcoming events, including a new episode of CSIS’s Coronavirus Crisis Update podcast featuring Dr. Beth Cameron.

The CDC’s New Pandemic “Weather Service”

The CDC announced this week the formation of the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, comprised of about 100 scientists who will analyze technical data and communicate their findings to decision makers and the public regarding risk and changes in how COVID-19 is behaving. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and associate director for science at the CDC initiative, was quoted in the Washington Post stating, “We think of ourselves like the National Weather Service, but for infectious diseases.” She further explained the goals of the center, saying “We would love to be able for people to look to us to say, ‘I’m about to commute on the Red Line. … Should I bring a mask based on what’s happening with respiratory disease in my community? Should I have my birthday party outside or inside?’ Those kinds of decisions, I think, are where we would like to move toward.”

The center’s creation was a feature of the Biden administration’s first national security memorandum, dated January 21, 2021, though the center officially launched last Thursday at a summit on strengthening US early warning systems for health threats hosted by the Office on Science and Technology Policy. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s efforts to attract outside experts to this team are seen by some as acknowledgment on her part of the criticism that her agency has failed systemically to make effective use of surveillance, data collection, and risk communication throughout the pandemic. Health IT Analytics quoted Walensky announcing the center’s launch, writing ““I am excited we have launched CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, in the press release. “This new center is an example of how we are modernizing the ways we prepare for and respond to public health threats. I am proud of the work that has come out of this group thus far and eager to see continued innovation in the use of data, modeling, and analytics to improve outbreak responses.””

China’s “Zero-Covid” Toll Grows

Shanghai’s lockdown woes continue, with residents still struggling to gain adequate access to food and other basic supplies amid a lockdown said to be even worse than Wuhan’s in 2020. Authorities have even take to taping residents’ doors shut so they can tell if they left their homes without permission and the necessary escort. Simultaneously, whole neighborhoods have been relocated to quarantine facilities over 100 miles away in an effort to keep negative individuals away, though it remains unclear why the authorities have chosen to move negative people away instead of those who are positive. The BBC explained that many in the small town of Beicai were forced to leave randomly, writing “An official notice issued to residents told them to pack their belongings and leave their wardrobe doors open. They were also told to leave open the front door of their home. Images on social media of people queuing with packed suitcases at night-time showed the scale of the operation.” Worse yet, footage emerged this week of a community worker brutally beating a pet corgi to death with a shovel in Pudong after its owner tested positive for COVID-19 and was moved to quarantine.

Shanghai has reported just 17 deaths during this entire ordeal, again sparking many questions about the legitimacy of the country’s numbers, though it seems China defines COVID-19 deaths more narrowly, opting to label chronically ill patients who die while sick with COVID-19 as having died of their chronic condition. Furthermore, the New York Times writes, “It may never become clear how many similar stories there are. China does not release information on excess deaths, defined as the number of deaths — from Covid as well as other causes — exceeding the expected total in a given period. Public health scholars say that figure more accurately captures losses during the pandemic, as countries define Covid-related deaths differently.” On a related note, India continues to hold up the WHO’s efforts to publish their calculations indicating 15 million people have died from COVID-19 globally, a number completely dwarfing the current estimate of about 6.2 million.

The lockdowns are also causing major disruptions in the Yangtze River Delta region, which includes Shanghai and the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, that together represent about a fifth of the PRC’s national GDP. While some areas and factories have had their lockdowns eased, it has not been enough to stop the negative impacts on the global economy. Daily truck volumes moving through Shanghai were down 70% this week compared to just prior to when the lockdown began. The EU Chamber of Commerce also estimates that the availability of trucks in the city has shrunk by 40%, mirroring the lack of community and delivery workers currently facing the city amid rising tensions. The Wall Street Journal explained this week, “The logistics snarls in and around Shanghai further add pressure to an already battered global supply chain and to rising prices of goods in the U.S. They also complicate the Chinese government’s efforts to reopen factories shuttered due to lockdowns. Logistics managers expect weeks to months before some international shipments return to normal.” However, as the world continues to grapple with constant supply chain issues, it is becoming evident this might just be normal now.

It’s Time For Your Bird Feeders to Fly the Nest (For Now)

The United States is currently experiencing an “unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in our wild birds,” according to the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The strain being transmitted right now is a highly pathogenic form of H5N1, prompting culling across the country as the virus is detected in commercial flocks. The US recorded the euthanization of over 22 million commercial chickens and turkeys between the start of February and the start of April this year in response to the spread of the virus, following similar outbreaks in Europe earlier this year. The virus is shed in feces and respiratory droplets from infected birds, and it is known for being quite tough, able to survive for weeks in some environments. According to the New York Times, “The H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, which is widespread in Europe, was first reported in North America in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador in December 2021. By mid-January, the virus had infected an American wigeon and blue-winged teal in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

Avian Influenza (AI) is typically found in migratory waterfowl like swans, geese, and ducks, who can carry these viruses without getting sick. As they migrate, they can spread the disease within their own groups as well as into other bird species. This is a problem when it infects birds like chickens or raptors, who become severely ill and die quickly. This year has seen AI have an unusually significant impact on birds of prey, however, with over three dozen bald eagles recorded dying from the disease heading into their spring nesting season, prompting further concern. The current outbreak is unique because of the very high levels of transmission of H5N1 in wildlife right now, says the Raptor Center. They also explain that more is known about how the virus impacts waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds, and, to a lesser extend, birds like raptors. They note there is a significant knowledge gap in how songbirds are affected by HPAI outbreaks.

Dr. Victoria Hall at the University of Minnesota explained concerns about bird feeders during this time, writing:

“During these unprecedented times, we recommend doing anything that we can to try and help our wild bird populations. Because the science is unclear on the role of songbirds in this current H5N1 outbreak, one consideration is to not encourage birds to gather together at places such as bird feeders or bird baths. These are places where things like viruses could easily be exchanged between individuals.

In areas with HPAI transmission in any avian species, consider pausing the use of bird feeders and baths for the next couple of months until the rate of virus transmission in wild birds dramatically decreases. Not only will this action help to protect those beautiful feathered creatures that visit your yard, but will also help all wild bird species that are already having it  hard this spring because of HPAI. We have it in our power to take a short term action so we are not accidentally assisting in the virus’ spread.  This outbreak won’t last forever and I, for one, am greatly looking forward to when I can safely hang my bird feeders back up!”

The United States Geological Survey is updating their maps showing areas of the US where cases have been reported, which can further help in determining whether it is time to take some extra precautions like taking down the bird baths and feeders for now. Fortunately, hummingbird feeders are considered to be at the lowest risk since fewer types of birds visit them. Experts advise to consider pausing use of these feeders or, if their use is continued, clean them on a daily basis for now to help reduce risk.

Because this is the Pandora Report and not your neighborhood bird watching newsletter, here is where we scare you just a bit more: HPAI, particularly strains like H5N1, are of concern in global health security because, though they tend to only infect birds, the potential consequences if they were able to infect humans could be devastating. Specifically, the concern is that influenza A viruses that are circulating in poultry populations could recombine with human influenza A viruses, allowing them to become more transmissible in human populations. This could cause massive rates of infections and deaths globally. Right now, HPAI Asian H5N1 is epizootic in poultry populations in many countries, and that is not expected to change in the near future, so there will be some sporadic human infections in those who closely interact with these bird populations. Avian Influenza viruses like H5N1 are on the USDA’s portion of the Select Agents and Toxins List and they have been prominent features in discourse about dual use research of concern and gain of function studies on certain potential pandemic pathogens. Though HPAI H5N1 has more opportunities to infect people right now by virtue of more humans being exposed to infected animals amid the outbreaks, there is no indication that it has become better suited to infect and spread between people through genetic reassortment with human influenza A viruses. This is, however, a good reminder that human interactions with animal populations are not without risk, especially as human populations continue to encroach upon and damage wildlife habitats globally.

CSIS Coronavirus Crisis Update Ft. Dr. Beth Cameron

Dr. Beth Cameron, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the White House, joins CSIS for Episode #132 of this podcast. “The Biden administration is making progress on the Global Health Security and Pandemic Preparedness Fund, envisioned as a Financial Intermediary Fund at the World Bank. The fund will invest in a globally linked bio-surveillance and early warning system, aid to the most vulnerable countries to build their health security, and rapid research and development in regulatory systems to create, rapidly scale, and distribute medical countermeasures.” They discuss the need to “finish the job” and get out of this phase of the pandemic and the need for truly global surveillance systems and stronger information sharing to prevent the next biological threat. The second COVID-19 Summit has been announced for May 12, with the dual goals of ending the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthening preparedness for variants and future pandemic threats.

The Athena Agenda: Advancing the Apollo Program for Biodefense

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense recently released its newest report, the Athena Agenda, building on its January 2021 report, The Apollo Program for Biodefense: Winning the Race Against Biological Threats. This new report highlights the devastation brought in the year since the earlier report was published, arguing that COVID-19, despite these horrors, is not a once-in-a-century pandemic and that another major biological event will likely occur before the century’s end. The authors focus on reductions of biodiversity, exploitation of wildlife, animal-human interactions, advances in gene-editing and synthetic biology, and more in explaining the myriad of risks facing the world today. They write, “The Athena Agenda: Advancing The Apollo Program for Biodefense contains additional recommendations to execute The Apollo Program, building on the Commission’s previous work and taking into consideration the efforts of current and former Administrations and Congresses. This report provides the following specific governance and technology recommendations to implement The Apollo Program for Biodefense and identifies the US government organizations responsible for leadership and accountability, though certain actions may require or benefit from public-private partnerships.” Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz provided advice to the authors of this report.

The Bubble Benefits From Some GMU Biodefense Program Knowledge

Netflix’s new comedy film, The Bubble, premiered early this month featuring the likes of Karen Gillan and David Duchovny in its all-star cast. The film follows the plight of a film cast trying to make a movie during the COVID-19 pandemic, following them through their two week quarantine and an influenza outbreak on set that will not stop the studio from making them film (In other, real life news, 20% of workplace COVID-19 outbreaks in LA County are in the entertainment industry, but the show must go on!). While the film has not been too popular with critics, the writers did make an effort to get their commentary on pandemic life right, turning to GMU Biodefense PhD Program turned professor, Dr. Saskia Popescu, for guidance.

Biological Risks and Hazards In the World Today With Special Focus On Russia and Ukraine

Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy is offering this event featuring Dr. Gregory Koblentz. The event will take place on May 4, 2022, from 12:00-1:30pm ET. This will be held as a Zoom webinar, and is open to the public. Information and registration for the event can be found here: tinyurl.com/iserpbiorisks .

Biological and Chemical Weapons Security and the War in Ukraine

On May 5 at 4 pm CT, join experts Asha George and Robert Pope in conversation with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor Matt Field to discuss security risks in Ukraine. The discussion will cover the role of US-supported biological labs in Ukraine, what Russia’s alleged use of poisons and chemical weapons in the past says about its intentions for use in the future, and how disinformation about the use of biological weapons in Ukraine weakens global security. Speakers include Dr. Asha George (Executive Director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense) and Dr. Robert Pope (Director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Directorate of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency). Register here.

Lessons from COVID-19 for the Public Health Emergency Enterprise: What Happened to the Plans? – A Workshop

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies is hosting a workshop exploring the nation’s Public Health Emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise, through the lens of COVID-19 in the US. The workshop will be hosted on May 17 and 18, and will explore key components, success stories, and failure points throughout the entire PHE preparedness and response enterprise. Participants will also identify opportunities for more effective catastrophic disaster, pandemic, and other large scale PHEs planning at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels. Speakers include Dr. Deborah Birx (former Coronavirus Response Coordinator at the Office of the Vice President) and Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security). Register here.

Women in STEM with Syra Madad and Linda Mobula

The Harvard Belfer Center’s Women in STEM series developed and moderated by Dr. Syra Madad highlights women leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The aim of the series is to recognize the various accomplishments and contributions by women in STEM fields while educating and empowering young women, providing valuable advice and sharing pearls of wisdom. Join Belfer Fellow Dr. Syra Madad in conversation with Dr. Linda Mobula (Senior Health Specialist at World Bank) on Wednesday April 27 at 1 pm ETVisit the event website for more information and to register.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

“Biological Weapons Are Banned: Biological Research Is Not”

EUvsDisinfo released this interview with Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders, founder of The Trench, this week discussing some of the basics of history and international law surrounding biological weapons and the implications of Russia’s claims.

Programme Biologique Militaire en Ukraine, Histoire d’Une Désinformation Russe/ Military Biological Program in Ukraine, History of Russian Disinformation

This French language resource from the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique (Foundation for Strategic Research) discusses Russia’s historical CBW disinformation efforts and offers updates and analysis of recent developments, including Russia’s statements at the UN Security Council last month.

ABSA 2021 Conference- Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Filling the Toolbox: Staying Vigilant and Preparing for the Next Public Health Event

By Emily Johnson, Biodefense MS Student

Introduction

The United States is experiencing a decline in COVID-19 cases, but SARS-CoV-2 is still a prominent topic here and internationally. The American Biological Safety Association’s (ABSA) 64th Annual Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity Conference took place October 25-27, 2021, bringing together a global community to discuss these topics while aiming to provide solutions to tackle the most challenging issues, present fascinating case studies, and showcase the latest developments in biosafety and biosecurity. The conference was presented virtually, offering a platform similar to a live conference including a lobby, exhibit hall, poster hall, networking lounge, and live presentations.

Overview of ABSA Virtual Conference Report

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleague, Mr. Konnor Heyde. To provide our readership with a comprehensive report on the ABSA conference, we self-assigned the sessions we would write about. This report provides an overview, details, and comments on the following sessions:

  1. Session I: Virology in the Time of a Pandemic
  2. Session III: The COVID Pandemic: The Evolving Reality
  3. Session XII: Gene Therapy
  4. Professional Development: Identifying and Overseeing Potential DURC: A practical Guide for the Biosafety Professional

Session I: Virology in the Time of a Pandemic

When a novel virus emerges in a population there is no substitute for preparedness in improving the effectiveness and timeliness of the response. The conference commenced with Dr. Dirk P. Dittmer from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill discussing the causative agent of COVID-19, testing, and disease outlook.

He began by utilizing a case study format, presenting an “old” pandemic: HIV. The progression of the pandemic was separated into three phases and compared to the current pandemic. It began with a phase he designated as “pre” which, for HIV, was before publication of the July 1981 MMWR report recognizing abnormal presentation of pneumonia in both San Francisco and New York. The rate of occurrence increased exponentially creating a bell curve which was the pandemic phase. The curve dropped precipitously, though never returning to zero even after effective treatment using antiretrovirals was approved. This was the transition to the “post” phase. For the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Dittmer defined the “pre” phase as the period leading up to the release of the article in the New England Journal of Medicine on A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019. Dr. Dittmer considers the pandemic phase as ending with the FDA approval of a vaccine in August of this year in addition to an EUA for other treatments.

The Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (more commonly known by its acronym- GISAID) is a worldwide repository of genomic sequences historically used to catalog international influenza variants. It played a critical role in the identification and tracking of emerging strains of SARS-CoV-2 variants. By March of 2020, the G614 variant was present in the US, exhibiting lower CT values (referring to the PCR cycle threshold where a florescent signal is first detectable) suggesting a higher viral load and therefore an increase in transmissibility over the wild type. This does not necessarily indicate more severe disease. In May 2021, the delta variant arrived in the US and, as of September, was indicated in over 90% of cases.

Dr. Dittmer referred to the pre-pandemic period as a time of blissful ignorance and squandered opportunities. He identified one failure as the self-imposed bottleneck by the single PCR test manufactured in a single place that slowed testing in the US. Another example of this is the underfunding of proposed basic science research on viruses related to HIV or SARS-CoV-2 prior to their respective outbreaks. Limited funding resulted in few experts on coronaviruses. The lesson to be learned is that while research will escalate during a pandemic, basic science research should be supported between public health emergencies.

Constant preparedness is crucial. Previous work on techniques to increase accuracy in virus detection resulted in a broad knowledge base from which researchers could build when faced with the testing demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaque assays measure infectious virus, but they are time consuming. QPCR overestimates viral load because it includes viral segments. This means the CDC assay is more sensitive because it measures full genome as well as segments while the WHO assay only reports full genome.

Dr. Dittmer’s lab is using Rapid NextGen Sequencing methods. There is a linear relationship between viral load and number of reads, therefore it can also be used as a viral load assay, albeit an expensive one. It takes about 100,000 reads to determine a whole genome. The results suggest that most genomic material sequenced was whole genome, therefore eliminating the advantage of the CDC assay over the WHO assay.

NextGen sequencing can be used in fragment detection, even with a low number of reads. If the segments are dispersed throughout the target genome it is likely the fragmented virus was present in the sample. Although further testing is needed, he proposes a relationship between sequence coverage and infectivity. The higher the number of reads, the more likely the sample contained infectious virus. The remaining barrier is cost.

The next pandemic cannot be predicted. There is no magic bullet. The best way to prepare is to be ready for the unpredictable. This, Dr. Dittmer, says is the value of basic science.

Session III: The COVID Pandemic: The Evolving Reality

In 2005, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine outlining the inevitability of an imminent pandemic and a strategy to prepare. These warnings went mostly unheeded. In this fireside chat, he discussed the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, posed questions to be investigated, and measures that should be taken to prepare not only for the next inevitable pandemic, but for the impending surges of COVID-19 the US is likely to continue to experience. He is a leading epidemiologist, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, professor at the University of Minnesota, and in November of 2020 was appointed to President-elect Joe Biden’s Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.

Dr. Osterholm began by discussing the mystery of the four- to six-week surges in geographical hot spots of COVID-19 cases during which he draws parallels between this phenomenon and the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. At the beginning of that pandemic, there was a surge in cases during the March/April timeframe followed by a significant drop with no mitigation factors in place. This repeated in the late Fall. That winter, the cases of H1N1 were sparce, but more interestingly, there was an international phenomenon of a drop in seasonal flu cases. Similarly in 2020, all respiratory diseases appeared to decrease in prevalence. He observes that this is not the result of human action as it was equally demonstrated in countries with and without mitigations.

The Dawn of the Age of the Variants

In November 2020, the SARS-CoV2 alpha variant was detected in the UK. It was this point where he said his analogy changed from which inning of the COVID-19 pandemic baseball game we were in to how many minutes of the game had passed. Variants can be associated with changes in transmissibility, severity, or the ability to evade natural defenses and vaccine immunity. There is potential for emergence of novel variants as the pathogen continues to spread. With 65 million eligible Americans still unvaccinated and Russia experiencing an uptick in cases due to similar hesitancy among the Russian population to accept the Sputnik vaccine, we have a population ripe for the spread of this virus for months or years to come. However, Dr. Osterholm believes that COVID-19 is likely to present seasonally in the future.

Another point where SARS-CoV-2 is not analogous to seasonal influenza is that when a pandemic influenza becomes a seasonal virus, it attenuates into a seasonal pattern and genetic changes are unlikely to result in it becoming more challenging. Conversely, we do not know what severity or transmissibility modifications future SARS-CoV-2 variants will exhibit.

Vaccines: Study, Learn, Implement, Repeat

When mRNA data was originally released, it showed high rates of safety and over 90% protection from severe illness, hospitalization, and death. The Johnson & Johnson adenovirus-based vaccines showed lower initial immune response, only reaching about 74%.  

The mRNA vaccines exhibit waning immunity over time. It is still unclear what this will mean over the long term, but he predicts break through cases will continue to increase in number and in younger populations as they received their initial vaccine later than the older population and are now reaching a valley of immunity.

Dr. Osterholm believes the adenovirus-based vaccines will be the game changers with COVID-19. Although the mRNA vaccines initially reached a higher rate of protection, it dropped over time while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine improved over time, reaching the low 80% range by six months post-immunization. A second dose increases numbers into the 90% range, and this may be more enduring. We must learn how to best use these vaccines concerning mixing, dosing, and timing. There may be multi-strain vaccines in the future, but improvements seen in second or third generation COVID vaccines will likely be developments related to temperature tolerance and, possibly, coverage for variants.

Laboratory Safety

During his tenure on the Natural Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, he was very critical of the research on mammalian transmission of H5N1, citing his respect for the importance of laboratory and biologic safety issues. He views the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in a similar light and is concerned with lab safety. However, he believes that while it is possible the virus originated in a lab, it is likely the result of a spillover event like SARS or MERS. He went on to point out that Wuhan is a transportation hub in China with millions of travelers traversing the city daily. In addition, there is a thousand-mile reach for food, particularly live animals, coming to the markets of Wuhan. This evidence supports a spillover scenario. He dismissed the cleavage site evidence of a human-manipulated genome citing similar genetics in coronaviruses found in caves in Laos.

To demonstrate his point, he proposes the hypothetical situation of a novel virus emerging in the Caribbean. One of the initial regions the virus would be clinically detected is Atlanta, Georgia due to it being a transportation hub between North America and the Caribbean. Would the international population assume the virus escaped from a CDC lab?

Question & Answer Session

When asked why there were more cases in the US than China where it originated, Dr. Osterholm was quick to point out that those two elements are not related. China imposed draconian quarantine measures and rampant testing while the US has not. There are many factors contributing to the respective countries’ reported number of cases.

Another attendee asked why immunity from infection was not equal to that of the vaccine. Dr. Osterholm explained that we do not fully understand what immunity to COVID-19 is yet. In the first weeks after mRNA vaccination, study participants showed high levels of protection from disease, but almost undetectable antibody levels. Cellular immunity was playing some role in that protection that is not yet fully understood. There is conflicting data on what immunity is offered by natural infection. While it does afford some protection, how good it is and how long it lasts are still unknown. There is strong evidence that those who receive a vaccine after natural infection are at a lower risk, similar to the natural infection acting like a first dose.

A question asked by many since the pandemic began is, “What could have been done differently in the beginning?” He replied that not much can be done once a respiratory virus establishes itself in a population. There is no magical solution. The US could have improved in preparations for a major health event. A better prepared healthcare system will be integral in successful navigation of future pandemics. He also cited improving communication with the public.

Lastly, he believes there is a zero chance of eradication. It is more likely that with long-term vaccination, COVID-19 will eventually present in a seasonal manner like influenza.

Session XII: Gene Therapy Research Boom and Future Challenges

Dr. Daniel Eisenman of Advarra shared an overview of the progression of gene therapy research and the changes relevant to an institutional biosafety committee.

To review the process of regulatory oversight of gene therapy research, it begins with preclinical research and development involving only animal models. When potential has been shown, an application for an Investigational New Drug (IND) is submitted to the FDA. Phase two is the first clinical phase involving humans. It usually involves 20 to 100 subjects, although Dr. Eisenman pointed out that the trial for a COVID-19 vaccine had around 30,000. The focus of phase two is to prove safety. In phase three, the focus shifts to showing efficacy, it involves more participants, and it has determined optimal dosing. After successfully completing phase three, FDA approval is requested. Phase four includes post approval research.

Immediately preceding the pandemic, Dr. Eisenman published an article in Applied Biosafety which demonstrated the dramatic, explosive growth in the number of gene therapy IND applications per year. By 2020, that number had flatlined. Why? As a result of COVID-19, many clinical trials were suspended.

Prior to COVID-19, most gene therapy submissions were for oncological application. Now, among the most recent approvals, there were eight for oncology, but six for infectious diseases (two of which were COVID-19 vaccines) and two for rare diseases. These successes pave the way for future therapies.

Two gene therapy success stories were presented. The first was treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, a disease characterized by night blindness at a young age that progresses to total blindness. The therapy reversed vision loss demonstrated by the speed with which they were able to navigate a dimly lit maze. The other example of a successful application was treatment of spinal muscular atrophy type 1. SMA1 usually results in death during toddlerhood due to the inability to control muscles involved in breathing. Children who have undergone treatment are living into childhood and are even able to walk and run on their own.

There are currently over 350 gene therapies in phase three trials. In a recent statement on advancingthe  development of safe and effective cell and gene therapies, the FDA suggested that gene therapy may be at a turning point similar to that of monoclonal antibodies in the late 1990s. The technology has the potential to become a backbone of modern treatment regimens.

Dr. Eisenman then went on to discuss some changes in Institutional Review Board (IRB) involvement in multi-site studies. Traditionally an IRB review is done at each institution where the clinical trial is being carried out. This can be inefficient. As of 2018, all NIH funded multi-site studies are required to utilize a single IRB. Other federally funded studies made the change in 2020.

NExTRAC is the Novel and Exceptional Technology and Research Advisory Committee. It no longer oversees individual clinical trials but instead relies on prompts which would direct public deliberation on certain research. This is one result of the burden of oversight shifting from NIH to the FDA.

One recommendation Dr. Eisenman hasd is for the public to request more formal FDA requirements for shedding data during clinical trials. Currently it is risk based and more of a recommendation as FDA exemptions are regularly requested and granted. He suggested it should be included for all vector-based studies and replication-competent microbes, including vaccines.

Conclusion

The presentations shared at the conference were very informative, thought provoking, and had a general feeling of collegiality from living the pandemic and experiencing similar struggles. One of the presentations exhibiting ingenuity resulting from COVID-19 was given by Benjamin Fontas. He discussed the development of Short Term Use Biocontainment Bubbles at Yale (STUBB-Y) where researchers drew on their expertise to provide professionals working in high risk occupations at Yale temporary protection from aerosols at the beginning of the pandemic. This was just one example of the innovative applications of biosafety experience that presenters contributed to their institutions to mitigate safety concerns during the pandemic.

COVID-19 vaccines were also discussed by multiple speakers, specifically regarding the need to look at them as one of the tools in our toolbox, not a final solution. A recurrent theme was the importance of communication with the public to ensure their trust in science and scientific representatives. From misinformation about mitigations to questions about the ability of novel pathogens to escape a lab, it is more important now than ever that the public is communicated with in a way that encourages trust and understanding.

Professional Development Course on Dual Use Research of Concern

Professional development courses were offered in conjunction with the ABSA 2021 conference. I attended Identifying and Overseeing DURC: A practical Guide for the Biosafety Professional presented by Rebecca Moritz, Biosafety Director at Colorado State University.

Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) is defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as “life sciences research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment, materiel, or national security.” It is interesting to note there is a difference between dual use research and dual use research of concern. They both refer to research that could be used for both beneficial and malevolent purposes. However, DURC directly references a significant threat with broad consequences.

Historically relevant cases of DURC include the mousepox experiment by Jackson et. al in 2001 and the 1918 influenza research by Tumpey in 2005. In 2004, the National Academies of Sciences released Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, better known as the Fink Report. The goal was to better educate the scientific community on how their research could have unintended consequences.

To better guide those defining what should be considered concerning research, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity released the Proposed Framework for the Oversight of Dual Use Life Sciences Research: Strategies for Minimizing the Potential Misuse of Research Information. The guiding principles focused around oversight that would maintain public trust by demonstrating that the scientific community recognizes potential security threats and is acting responsibly to protect the public safety and security. However, it cautions that there must be a balance that allows for both oversight and research advancement.

Similarly, research on potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs) is necessary to protect global health and security. The Department of Health and Human Services released the Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens (P3CO) in 2017. This framework guides department-level pre-funding review on research that may create, transfer, or use enhanced PPP.

The most recent DURC policy went into effect in 2015. The framework should be applied in cases that involves one of the 15 agents listed in the policy or if it has the potential to result in one of the seven experimental effects listed. This includes enhancements in consequences, resistance, or transmissibility, disrupting immunity, altering the natural host range, or reconstituting an extinct agent. Interestingly, the reference to a “novel pathogen” was dropped between the 2012 and the 2014 versions, but it is still a topic to be taken into consideration. In fact, it is possible for research outside the scope articulated in the policy to still be DURC and require review.

The Institutional Review Entity (IRE) board performs a risk assessment on any research or work done at the institution that is subject to DURC evaluation. The members should have sufficient expertise to assess dual use of a range of scenarios but may also contact consultants as needed. These plans, including mitigations, should be reviewed annually.

There are many points to consider when reviewing the whole lifespan of proposed research for DURC. They can be summarized by looking at how the work will be performed and results communicated, the scope of consequences with countermeasures taken into consideration, the potential timeframe for misuse, and the skill, knowledge, or technology needed to use the product for nefarious purposes. Potential benefits are also an essential aspect of the review. DURC should not be only associated with the unscrupulous application of science. The goal is knowledge or methods that will benefit humanity. If there are risks, it is important to consider if they target a specific population.

Recognizing a risk is present is not necessarily reason to deny the research from proceeding. Risk mitigation can reduce the risk to a level that is acceptable when compared to the potential benefits. These plans may include biosafety, biosecurity, personal protective equipment, standard operating procedures, occupational health plan like vaccines, training, and countermeasures. Institutions may apply varying mitigations as appropriate for each individual situation.

If existing measures are not adequate to mitigate conceivable risk, creating a mitigation plan may be the means to receive funding from a government source. Subsequently ensuring compliance with the plan is essential. One way to encourage this is by the IRE maintaining a positive relationship with the primary investigator and requesting that they report any changes that may alter the evaluation. Another source that may assist in identifying DURC is the institutions’ grant administrators. These mitigation plans may be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and therefore should not disclose institutional proprietary or security information.

To close the session, dual use case studies were presented and evaluated. This was a learning opportunity to practice what had been taught, but also to experience how subjective interpretations can be. Those same case studies were used to develop risk mitigation plans that would alleviate the most pressing risks while still allowing the research to take place and be submitted for publishing, possibly with some changes.

Pandora Report: 4.15.2022

This week we tackle online claims that Russia used CW in Mariupol, continued attacks on Ukrainian healthcare infrastructure and personnel, Shanghai’s continued lockdown and COVID-19’s spread to other Chinese cities, and the trillions climate change will likely cost US taxpayers annually in the not-so-distant future. We have listed a number of new publications, including one Biodefense PhD student’s new article covering the military history of sulfur mustard and new work on hurdles to establishing international biosecurity rules.

Managing Editor’s Note: Last week, some readers encountered issues with how the font for the weekly report displayed in their browsers and email. This looks to have been a technical issue as the font size of the Pandora Report was not actually made smaller on our site or editing platforms. Thank you so much to those who took the time to write and bring this to our attention- it is much appreciated! The weekly issue from April 8 is available here on our site for anyone who had the viewing issue last week and would like to see it on the website.

Did Russia Use Chemical Weapons in Ukraine? Vague Reports of Drones and Poisonous Substances Does Not a CW Attack Make

Following social media reports on Monday that Russia used “a poisonous substance of unknown origin” in Mariupol near the Azovstal iron and steel works, the internet has been full of debate about whether or not this was a chemical weapons attack. The widely circulating post claims that victims suffered “respiratory failure”, “vestibulo-atactic syndrome” (which many have noted is an oddly specific term to include with such little evidence), inner ear issues causing dizziness, and vomiting, eye twitching, and loss of coordination. BBC reports that, “One injured man described a “sweet-tasting” white smoke covering an area of the plant after an explosion. Another said he felt immediately unable to breathe and had collapsed with “cotton legs”.” The reports indicated that three people were ill as a result, though severe illness and injuries were not reported. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby all expressed that the claims are being taken seriously and investigated, experts have cast significant doubt on these claims’ legitimacy. This also comes amid continued concerns about use of white phosphorus bombs, which are not considered incendiary or chemical weapons under Protocol III and the CWC respectively, in civilian areas of Mariupol.

The key problems with these CW claims are that there is a lack of solid reporting, it is difficult (if not impossible) to make confident assessments about an event like this remotely and over social media, and the reports spark more questions than they answer, including: Why is the reported illness being attributed to chemicals specifically? What kind of drone was used? Are there videos or photos of it? What height was the drone at when the agent was delivered? How is it known that it was there to deliver an agent and not for another purpose? How much and what kinds of agent could that drone deliver? What were the weather and environment like at the time? What industrial chemicals are at the plant where this occurred? What was happening at the time of the attack? Was there active combat occurring where fires and explosions are expected? Was the agent persistent? Can environmental and biomedical samples be taken? What would such a small-scale CW attack provide the Russians right now? This is not to accuse anyone of lying, to say this did not happen, or to pretend the threat of CW use in this war is not real (though it is generally considered low), but these are questions that need to be answered to substantiate these reports. Claims that a state used CW are very serious and should not be made or spread haphazardly. It is also incredibly important to recognize that different agents behave in very different ways, so it may be impossible to ever verify that this happened, especially as heavy fighting continues.

Dan Kaszeta, author of numerous works on chemical weapons and a current fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, was quick to outline a number of the facts about what we do (and don’t) know about this incident and the dangers of trying to define this event via social media. Among these problems is that the reported symptoms are not agent-specific and do not point specifically to chemical agents as their cause. There have been vague descriptions of the chemical used in the supposed attack and, even with some claims indicating it was colorless and odorless, this is still going to be an issue without environmental samples. Important to note too is that this occurred in an industrial area several weeks into a war; a number of industrial materials could have caused this, particularly amid fires and explosions caused by combat near the plant. Kaszeta also pointed out how varied CW agents are, so any chance of finding evidence of an attack will depend on a myriad of factors like how persistent the supposed agent is. He also explained that it is dangerous to jump to conclusions on matters such as these, so it is important to wait for more definite information to come out, particularly as many of the initial reports were authored by Azov, a Ukrainian nationalist group associated with the far right and neo-Nazism.

Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders contextualized these concerns and reports in The Trench, explaining that sensationalizing this reported event based on limited, “extremely sketchy” information is dangerous. He also explained in this piece when industrial chemicals and their precursors are considered chemical weapons which, again, is important to consider given the setting in Mariupol. He also notes some of the eerie similarities to previous events in Syria, including Russia’s ultimatum to Mariupol’s defenders, demanding that they surrender the city. He writes, “In and of itself, the incident is unrelated to possible CW use. However, it carries echoes of military operations in Syria where defenders of encircled cities or positions were offered the option to withdraw or face serious consequences. The insurgent groups and civilians who decided to retreat could leave the area; those who continued resisting faced chlorine attacks until they too abandoned their positions. The chemical attacks caused, relative to conventional operations, few casualties but with time psychological pressure increased. Once confronted with the demand to withdraw, the consequences of refusal became increasingly obvious.”

What is not in question is that the West is publicly decrying any threat or actual use of chemical weapons in the conflict. The CWC Coalition released a statement decrying this threat, highlighting Russia’s use of Novichoks in assassination attempts in recent years and its close allying with the Syrian Arab Republic, which has used CW throughout its civil war. The CWC Coalition also called out unsubstantiated claims about CW use, writing “We call upon Russia, in the strongest possible terms, to respect its solemn obligations under the Geneva Protocol and the CWC not to contemplate, let alone use or threaten to use, these globally banned weapons of mass terror. We also call on all parties to refrain from making unsubstantiated CW allegations for political advantage.”

On a related note, the European Commission announced recently that the EU has developed strategic reserves for chemical, biological, and radio-nuclear emergencies under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. This measure includes a €540.5 million rescEU strategic stockpile, established in close collaboration with the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). According to the Commission, this stockpile will consist of equipment and medicines, vaccines and other therapeutics to treat patients exposed to CBRN emergencies agents, as well as of rescEU decontamination reserve to provide decontamination equipment and expert response teams. The Commission explains that, “Extreme weather conditions and emerging threats, such as the coronavirus, but also CBRN incidents may overwhelm the ability of EU Member States to help each other, especially when several European countries face the same type of disaster simultaneously,” and that “People may be exposed to CBRN agents as a result of unintentional disasters (eg. a chemical plant leak, nuclear power plant incidents, the spread of an infectious disease) or intentional incidents (eg. a terrorist attack). Being prepared to address the risks of such threats is a key part of the EU CBRN stockpiling strategy.” The rescEU medical reserve has been mobilized to procure potassium iodine tablets (which can be used to help protect against the effects of radiation by saturating the thyroid, helping stop it from absorbing radioactive iodine if taken at the right time), 3 million of which have already been delivered to Ukraine through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

Another Grim Milestone: WHO Records 100th Attack on Healthcare in Ukraine

The WHO announced on April 7 that, since Russia started the war in Ukraine on February 24, over 100 attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel were recorded in the country. The release reads, ““We are outraged that attacks on health care are continuing. It took just 42 days to reach this grim milestone, the announcement noted. Attacks on health care are a violation of international humanitarian law, said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, at a press conference. “Peace is the only way forward. I again call on the Russian Federation to stop the war.”” As of today, since the start of this year, the WHO’s Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care has tracked 125 attacks on healthcare in Ukraine, resulting in at least 73 deaths and 51 injuries. These primarily consist of violence with heavy weapons, obstruction to healthcare delivery, and militarization of healthcare assets. Furthermore, 111 of these attacks have impacted facilities, 14 impacted medical transports, and 24 impacted supplies.

The WHO announcement continues with, “Across Ukraine, 1000 health facilities are in proximity to conflict areas or in changed areas of control,” explained Dr Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative in Ukraine. “Health workers throughout the country are risking their lives to serve those in need of medical services, and they, and their patients, must never be targeted. Further, when people are prevented from seeking and accessing health care, either because the facilities have been destroyed or out of fear that they may become a target, they lose hope. The mental health toll wreaked by the war cannot be underestimated, affecting civilians and the health workforce alike.”

It is important to note that Ukraine was working to improve its healthcare system but had a number of challenges when it was attacked by Russia, suffering from a polio outbreak, low COVID-19 vaccination rates, and other issues when the war started. Ukraine has been making efforts to institute healthcare reforms and achieve universal healthcare coverage, having finally secured parliamentary support for the latter in recent years after 25 years of efforts to do so. Reforms included a financing mechanism under which money follows the patient, so the specific needs of a patient are funded rather than facilities and providers. The state also introduced full-coverage for primary, palliative, and emergency care as well as reimbursement for medication for cardiovascular diseases, asthma, a type 2 diabetes with online prescription filling systems in development. These were significant steps and it is important to remember that healthcare is not a resource that just immediately replenishes itself. It takes time, funding, and serious effort to build a resilient, robust healthcare system and it takes time to develop competent, experienced healthcare professionals. Debilitating a country’s healthcare and public health infrastructure also severely harms their preparedness for CBW attacks and other similar emergencies so, if Russia does in fact decide to use these kinds of weapons in Ukraine, civilian casualties will likely be higher because of this damage to healthcare in the country.

The WHO’s report concludes with another grim reminder: “Attacks on health are unfortunately seen amid conflicts globally. Since 1 January 2022 [as of April 7], WHO has verified 160 attacks on health care in 11 countries and territories resulting in 97 deaths and 74 injuries. Outside of Ukraine at this time, Sudan is also witnessing a recent increase in attacks on health care.”

“Zero-COVID” Fails to Contain Shanghai Surge Amid Record Cases and Lockdown Challenges

According to the Wall Street Journal, 45 cities accounting for 40% of the PRC’s economic output had implemented full or partial lockdowns as of Monday evening. As Shanghai enters its third week of strict lockdowns, videos have emerged of citizens and the police clashing amid growing frustrations as many households run dangerously low on supplies. As grocery deliveries and other services in the city continued to struggle to adapt and more areas of the city were turned into quarantine centers, Shanghai reported a record 27,000 cases on Thursday alone. 25,146 of these were asymptomatic, according to NBC. Despite this and partial easing of restrictions in some areas, President Xi has indicated the city must continue with its strict “dynamic Covid clearance” policy and pandemic control measures. A piece published in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post read, “And yet, the anxieties have been fuelled by images of pandemic prevention workers killing dogs, hungry residents looting grocery stores and drones flying over skyscrapers telling residents to “control your soul’s desire for freedom”.”

The fact that other cities are turning to lockdowns now too has many concerned China could soon face a much more serious, widespread fight with the disease even as the Party continues to stick to its Zero-COVID policies. Guangzhou, a major industrial center located near Hong Kong with 19 million people in it, recently shut itself off as other cities follow suit and close schools and factories. There are also concerns that spring planting for China’s farmers, who feed over 1.4 billion people, could be disrupted as a result. The need for these measures and the fact they are spreading and getting so much attention is also likely a major embarrassment to the Party, which has worked hard to portray an image of having the disease under control from the start of the pandemic.

Having witnessed the recent struggle with COVID-19 in Hong Kong, the PRC is pushing vaccines for the elderly (17% of whom were not vaccinated in late March) in the mainland in an attempt to control the spread amid concerns Omicron and its subvariants may overwhelm the system that, ostensibly, has held strong for so long. It is important to consider too that China’s COVID-19 vaccines are not mRNA vaccines (despite the initial claims that the country was ready to roll out two such vaccines), but rather they are inactivated vaccines that are not as effective as the mRNA ones available in dozens of other countries. While China’s ARCoV/ Walvax vaccine, an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine candidate, is approved for Phase III clinical trials in China, Mexico, Indonesia, and Nepal, this does not offer much help or hope in the current situation. Low efficacy vaccines combined with much more draconian containment measures mean the country is lagging in both natural and vaccine-induced immunity, making the next several weeks critical for the PRC’s COVID-19 response and, potentially, the global economy.

The Cost of Doing Nothing: The US Could Face $2 Trillion in Revenue Loss if Climate Change Isn’t Addressed

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the first accounting of what unchecked climate change could spell for the federal budget and the economy overall. This is accompanied by two new assessments- the Federal Budget Exposure to Climate Risks and the Long-Term Budget Outlook focused on climate change. Written by Candace Vahlsing, Associate Director for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Science at OMB, and Danny Yagan, Chief Economist at OMB, the analysis highlights a few keypoints: 1) the economy might shrink a lot (up to a 10% reduction of GDP by the end of the century), 2) the cost of programs for various disaster responses will substantially increase, and 3) there will be consequences for things like business and public health that cannot be adequately understood or addressed by the OMB fiscal balance sheet.

Some of the shocking estimates, and what they will cost the US taxpayer, include: “Increased hurricane frequency could drive up spending on coastal disaster response between $22 billion and $94 billion annually by the end of the century,” “Over 12,195 individual Federal buildings and structures could be inundated under ten feet of sea level rise, with total combined replacement cost of over $43.7 billion,” “Rising wildland fire activity could increase Federal wildland fire suppression expenditures by between $1.55 billion and $9.60 billion annually, the equivalent of an increase between 78 percent and 480 percent, by the end of the century,” and “Federal expenditures on crop insurance premium subsidies are projected to increase 3.5 to 22 percent each year due to climate change-induced crop losses by the late-century, the equivalent of between $330 million and $2.1 billion annually.”

Climate change has attracted growing attention as a national security threat in the last decade as rising temperatures, increased severe weather, and reduced access to critical resources will likely increase geopolitical tensions and social instability globally. This was outlined in-depth in a National Intelligence Estimate from the National Intelligence Council last year, titled “Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040”. The physical effects of climate change are judged to likely exacerbate cross-border geopolitical flashpoints, most acutely impact the developing world, and worsen tensions on the global stage as states argue over who is most responsible and should pay for how much to meet goals like those in the Paris Agreement.

These reports and analysis from OMB help further explain the threat the US faces and the far-reaching consequences of failing to address this threat. President Biden’s budget request for FY 2023 asks for $44.9 billion to help tackle climate change, an increase of almost 60% over FY 2021, after failing to pass similar funding legislation under the Build Back Better framework. The Biden administration is asking for $15 billion for clean energy investment and infrastructure and $18 billion for climate resilience. However, this is just a request that Congress has to approve, so it remains in question if it will be fulfilled. Importantly, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it will be cheaper to reach the goal of keeping warming within 2°C than it will be to suffer the consequences of failing to do so.

“King of the War Gases: Examining the Military History of Mustard Gas”

Biodefense PhD student Chris Quillen recently published a new article titled “King of the War Gases: Examining the Military History of Mustard Gas” in the spring 2022 issue of the Georgetown Security Studies Review.  Chris’s article examines the role of sulfur mustard, commonly referred to as mustard gas, in an effort to determine why it is has become the most widely used chemical weapon in history.  Understanding why particular weapons were employed is essential to deciphering their importance and dissuading their future use. 

This study explores sulfur mustard use in a variety of conflicts over the last century.  The historical record begins with mustard’s introduction on the Western Front in World War I by the Germans followed by the retaliation in kind by the French, British, and Americans.  Between the world wars, mustard was widely used in the colonial battles in Africa by the Spanish in Morocco and the Italians in both Libya and Ethiopia.  Japan also employed mustard against the Chinese in the lead up to the Second World War.  In the 1960s Egypt utilized mustard during its intervention in the civil war in Yemen.  Iraq under Saddam Hussein repeatedly attacked both the Iranians and their own citizens with mustard during the 1980s.  Finally, the Islamic State became the first non-state actor to use mustard gas in Iraq and Syria. 

By analyzing this historical record, the impact of sulfur mustard in warfare is revealed as an effective, but not decisive, weapon of war.  While not a war-winning weapon, mustard gas is nevertheless viewed as a valuable weapon of terror for those willing to violate the taboo against the use of chemical weapons.  The lack of international reaction to the breaking of this taboo has only facilitated mustard’s continuing use.  The article concludes by determining the most effective method to limit sulfur mustard use in the future is increased willingness by the international community to enforce the taboo against chemical weapons use.

“Why the World Has No Universal Biosafety Standards”

Andrew Silver’s new article in the British Medical Journal covers pushes for the creation of international biosafety standards. To do this, he first discusses laboratory exposures to pathogens in recent years, including the case of the Academia Sinica lab worker who contracted COVID-19 while working with infected animals in late 2021, and others globally, including 56 unintended pathogen exposures in the UK between January 2020 and December 2021. The pandemic, he explains, has brought renewed interests in biosafety concerns, with China having passed a comprehensive biosecurity law in 2020 that entered into effect a year ago, and the UK announcing a call for evidence in February this year to help inform updates to its biological security strategy. The US has also recently launched reviews of its national biosecurity policy frameworks for pathogens with pandemic potential. However, there are not real international standards for this and key challenges to creating these include trying to align diverse national systems to fit a new international standard. He consulted with King’s College London’s Dr. Filippa Lentzos too, writing

In 2005, the World Health Assembly adopted the International Health Regulations, a legal instrument covering measures for preventing the spread of infectious disease transnationally. Currently, the regulations don’t have a mandate on biosafety or compliance, and Filippa Lentzos, a social scientist at King’s College London who studies biosecurity, says it’s “not realistic to get one agreed.” Instead she suggests that the International Organisation for Standardisation’s 2019 biorisk management standard for laboratories (ISO35001) could be adopted internationally with a third party responsible for certification and validation.

“BWC Assurance: Increasing Certainty in BWC Compliance”

Shearer et al. have released their article on Preprints discussing their efforts over the course of a year to interview 16 states parties’ delegations to the BWC and 20 subject matter experts to gauge their views on verification, compliance, and related concepts. They note that these views varied widely among interviewees which is not necessarily shocking as they write, “Following the 2001 end to negotiations on a legally binding protocol, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) states parties (SPs) developed entrenched positions about the necessity of a verification regime, hindering progress on treaty aims.” Their study is aimed at improving dialogue on verification issues outside the context of these issues, with the authors using the word “assurance” to “represent the degree of certainty that SPs are meeting their treaty obligations.” They found that there was general support for implementing assurance mechanisms, even without a comprehensive and legally binding protocol or verification regime, even among states parties who hold that as their primary goal. This is a useful study to build further discussions upon in the run-up to the 9th BWC RevCon later this year.

“Operationalising BTWC Article VII – A Task For the Forthcoming Review Conference”

Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders authored this discussion piece asking questions about issue-oriented approaches to Article VII of the BWC and highlighting the complicated relationship between BW and naturally-occurring outbreaks. The Implementation Support Unit of the Biological Weapons Convention (part of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs) released a report, “Operationalising Article VII of the Biological Weapons Convention”, this week to delegates participating in PrepCom in Geneva ahead of the BWC RevCon later this year. Article VII of the BWC reads simply, “Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to provide or support assistance, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to any Party to the Convention which so requests, if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention.” Dr. Zanders writes of Article VII in the The Trench,

Its clauses do not fit well together. The reference to the UN Security Council (UNSC) has its roots in the original draft Convention proposed by the United Kingdom in 1969 that outlined specific responsibilities and obligations for the body. Today, it makes little sense to wait for a decision in New York to authorise emergency assistance. Fortunately, States Parties have already clarified that ‘assistance’ as meant in the article is not military, but humanitarian. They have also agreed that humanitarian assistance may be provided before any such UNSC decision. Article VII also circumscribes the context for an assistance request, namely exposure to a danger that is the consequence of a breach of the Convention.

He also points out that much of what would fall under Article VII overlaps with global health as it pertains to naturally occurring outbreaks. Outbreaks are rarely intentionally caused by man, and there are potential dangers in not being clear about this overlap as it pertains to these international security measures. The BWC is a disarmament treaty and, as Zanders explains, states will likely invoke COVID-19 in their statements at RevCon this year, so this difference must be kept in mind. While much of the responses triggered by BW attacks would be the same as those triggered by natural outbreaks, understanding and delineating how the emergency response will differ once it is determined that the outbreak is deliberate is important and should be thought of during the upcoming review.

Systematizing the One Health Approach in Preparedness and Response Efforts for Infectious Disease Outbreaks: Proceedings of a Workshop

From the National Academies Press: A planning committee convened by the Forum on Microbial Threats of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a virtual workshop on February 23-25, 2021, titled Systematizing the One Health Approach in Preparedness and Response Efforts for Infectious Disease Outbreaks. The workshop gave particular consideration to research opportunities, multisectoral collaboration mechanisms, community-engagement strategies, educational opportunities, and policies that speakers have found effective in implementing the core capacities and interventions of One Health principles to strengthen national health systems and enhance global health security. This Proceedings of a Workshop summarizes the presentations and discussions of the workshop.

Malaria in Africa: Translating Science Into Practice

John’s Hopkins is offering this online symposium for World Malaria Day on April 25. This year’s World Malaria Day symposium, “Malaria in Africa: Translating Science into Practice”, will feature presentations by the five NIH International Centers of Excellence for Malaria Research (ICEMRs) that are actively working in Africa (Mali, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Zambia). Confirmed speakers include Dr. Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti (WHO Regional Director for Africa), Dr. Rick Steketee (Deputy US Global Malaria Coordinator), and Professor Sheila Tlou (African Leaders Malaria Alliance Ambassador). Learn more about the symposium and register here.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

“Biological Weapons Are Banned: Biological Research Is Not”

EUvsDisinfo released this interview with Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders, founder of The Trench, this week discussing some of the basics of history and international law surrounding biological weapons and the implications of Russia’s claims.

Programme Biologique Militaire en Ukraine, Histoire d’Une Désinformation Russe/ Military Biological Program in Ukraine, History of Russian Disinformation

This French language resource from the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique (Foundation for Strategic Research) discusses Russia’s historical CBW disinformation efforts and offers updates and analysis of recent developments, including Russia’s statements at the UN Security Council last month.

Pandora Report: 4.8.2022

This week we discuss the BWC at 50, the CDC’s upcoming review, the Metaverse’s continued failure to flag Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories, and Shanghai in lockdown. We also cover a number of great new publications and exciting upcoming events. Finally, we want to congratulate Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley for recently winning the Runner-Up McElvany Award from the James Martin Center and the Nonproliferation Review!

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley Wins Runner-Up McElvany Award from James Martin Center and Nonproliferation Review

Biodefense faculty member, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, was recently selected as the Runner-up Prize winner for the Doreen and Jim McElvany Award from the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nonproliferation Review. Her paper, “From CRISPR Babies to Super Soldiers: Challenges and Security Threats Posed by CRISPR” reviews Dr. He Jiankui’s experiments and evaluates the risks of such uses of CRISPR for malevolent purposes. She focuses on the technical obstacles to this kind of abuse, offering fresh perspectives on this security challenge. Her work was praised by the judges for “…its thoroughness and for the sophistication of her analysis of the sociotechnical factors that made Dr. He’s experiments unsuccessful, building on prior research on synthetic biology and biological-weapons proliferation. One called it “an antidote” to worst-case thinking about the risks of misuse that the CRISPR gene-editing tool may pose.” A big congratulations to Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and the other winners!

The Biological Weapons Convention Turns 50

The Preparatory Committee’s (PrepCom) second session for the BWC’s upcoming Ninth Review Conference is currently ongoing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. This is in preparation for the Review Convention (RevCon) set to take place in August of this year. Much of the commentary surrounding PrepCom has focused on the critical need to improve the BWC and enforcement of it, particularly in light of the ongoing devastation caused by the pandemic and the nonproliferation and biosecurity threats posed by advancements in the biological sciences.

US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, released a statement discussing the BWC’s history, its clear importance, and the need to strengthen it today. Among other things, his statement highlighted that “The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the devastating impact that disease can have on the world. We must recognize that other biological risks are growing and take action to address them. We face not only an increased threat of naturally occurring diseases, but also the potential for laboratory accidents and the intentional misuse of life sciences and biotechnology. The weaponization of biological agents and toxins violates the BTWC and is unacceptable, and the use of biological weapons – in the words of the Convention – “would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” He called on this year’s RevCon to take “near-term, concrete action to strengthen the Convention and benefit States Parties in such areas as increasing resource for international assistance and cooperation and establishing a mechanism to review advances in science and technology.”

You can find the reports from this PrepCom here. A recording of UNIDIR’s event, Lessons Learned for the biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference, is also available here.

Facebook Fails to Appropriately Label 80% of Bioweapon Conspiracy Articles On Its Platform

It’s no secret that Facebook remains a fertile land for conspiracy theorists and fringe groups, despite the launch of platforms like Parler and Truth Social. In recent years, Facebook and other platforms have begun labeling misleading and false posts with warnings, with varying levels of success. For example, during the early 2021 US Senate election in Georgia (a state where the 2020 presidential election was decided by just 12,000 votes), Facebook failed to apply fact check labels to 60% of top-performing posts using false election information. This has been a recurring theme regarding health information throughout the pandemic as well. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no different either. According to a study released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate Similarly, Facebook failed to label 80% of articles on its service that promote conspiracy theories about US labs in Ukraine and Ukraine’s supposed intent to use CBW against Russia. The Center also found Facebook fails to label 91% of posts containing Russian propaganda about Ukraine posted between February 24 and March 14 this year. The Center is renewing its calls for Meta to better enforce its use of “false information”, “partly false information”, and “missing context” labels in light of its findings.

Shanghai in Lockdown

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to cling to its “zero-COVID” strategy, this time shutting down the entire city of Shanghai amid the city’s worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began. Shanghai, a major global trade and finance hub, is home to 25 million people, making it the most populated city proper in the world and the only city in East Asia with a GDP higher than that of its country’s capital. The city officially recorded over 130,000 cases since March 1 as of yesterday, April 7, according to CNN. While lockdowns (along with censorship and lies) have been key features of the CCP’s COVID-19 response, Shanghai has seen the breakdown of food delivery services, which have proven essential for those stuck in lock down cities. Meituan, one such delivery service, sent nearly 1,000 extra workers to Shanghai to help with this issue this week amid rising complaints of hunger and lack of access to other necessities. Other measures include implementation of next-day group deliveries, community bulk buying, and use of autonomous delivery vehicles to help alleviate some of the problems.

Furthermore, there is concern about an “immunity gap” in the PRC, meaning the population has little to no protection gained through infection and very low protection acquired from Chinese vaccines due to their poor quality. China, like many countries, also still struggles with providing antivirals to people who do contract the disease, further complicating the matter. All of this has led some to question whether this will seriously damage the CCP moving forward, particularly as frustrations in Shanghai rise, with more citizens becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns. This all comes, too, after many a debate about whether or not the authoritarian government system in the PRC would prove “better” at pandemic management, further demonstrating the complications of understanding the relationship between governance and outbreak management.

CDC to Undergo Month-Long Evaluation Following Relentless Criticism

CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, announced this week that her agency will undergo a month-log, sweeping review in response to the near constant criticism it has received in the last couple of years. According to CNN Health, “Starting April 11, Jim Macrae, an administrator with the US Department of Health and Human Services, will join the CDC for a month-long listening tour and assessment. Walensky said he will provide her with insight on how the delivery of the agency’s science and programs can be further strengthened as it transitions more of its Covid-19 response activities to its various centers, institutes and offices. Walensky also asked three senior leaders to gather feedback on the agency, including its current structure and suggestions for change.” CDC says it has worked over the last year to develop systems to speed up data reporting and scientific processes during pandemic response, though it says it now needs to institutionalize and formalize these approaches.

Walensky also said in her statement, “Never in its 75 years history has CDC had to make decisions so quickly, based on often limited, real-time, and evolving science. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented opportunities across HHS to review current organizational structures, systems, and processes, and CDC is working to strategically position and modernize the agency to facilitate and support the future of public health. As we’ve challenged our state and local partners, we know that now is the time for CDC to integrate the lessons learned into a strategy for the future.” The CDC has been criticized for being slow to recommend universal masking early in the pandemic, as well as its subsequent rapid changes on masking and booster policies, in addition to its recent halving of the isolation time for infected people.

Health Security Intelligence- An Operations Perspective

A new article was recently published in Intelligence and National Security focusing on the bridge between health security warning intelligence and hospital preparedness and response, titled “Health Security Warning Intelligence During First Contact With COVID: An Operations Perspective”. In it, Wilson et al. use Nevada’s experience with COVID-19 as a case study to show that “access to health security warning intelligence enabled avoidance of overwhelming patient demand and compromise of emergency response.”

New Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report

A new IPCC report released this week, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, offers a more optimistic perspective on the potential to seriously limit global warming to 1.5°C, citing factors like the “sustained decreases of up to 85% in the costs of solar and wind energy, and batteries” in the last decade. “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee.  “I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective.  If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”

New AMR Strategic Plan from WHO and Others

The WHO, UN Environment Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and World Organisation for Animal Health recently released their new strategic plan for combatting AMR, “Together for One Health: Strategic Framework for Collaboration on Antimicrobial Resistance”. Among other things, the framework discusses the benefits of this specific collaboration and identified key goals and implementation strategies, including building countries’ capacities to ensure policy coherence across sectors.

IMF’s Global Strategy for Long-Term COVID-19 Risks

The International Monetary Fund recently released its latest strategy for COVID-19, “A Global Strategy to Manage the Long-Term Risks of COVID-19”, which assesses outcomes for scenarios ranging from a mild endemic disease to future dangerous variants emerging. Its strategy implications focus on broad healthcare equity, disease surveillance and monitoring, transition from an acute response to a sustainable, long-term one, and a unified risk-mitigation approach to future disease threats.

Biological and Chemical Warfare in Ancient Myth and History

Dr. Adrienne Mayor is delivering Loyola University Chicago’s Callahan Lecture this discussing her work, including her book, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Unconventional Warfare in the Ancient World. The lecture will be available on Zoom on April 11, 2022 at 5 pm CST. Register here.

ASPR TRACIE Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare System Considerations

Join presenters from the federal and private sectors as they discuss ASPR TRACIE’s newly released Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare System Considerations document and accompanying Topic Collection; current and future HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) and Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) efforts and priorities as they pertain to climate change; and the critical role of health systems in advancing environmental stewardship to achieve health equity. The webinar will take place from 2:30-3:30 PM (ET) on Monday, April 18, 2022Register today.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

Lessons From the First Time Russia Accused the United States of Biowarfare

Dr. Conrad Crane of the US Army War College authored this piece in War on the Rocks discussing the Soviet Union’s false claims that the US used BW against North Korea and China during the Korean War.

Will Russia Use Chemical Weapons in Ukraine? Researchers Evaluate the Risks

Davide Castelvecchi reports in this Nature News Explainer, discussing Western government’s worries about Russian CW, probable Russian thinking on the use of CW in the conflict, and prevention and detection measures.

Unmasking “Clandestine,” the Figure Behind the Viral “Ukrainian Biolab” Conspiracy Theory

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism recently released this article discussing the identity and background of “Clandestine”, a Virginia man and ARNG veteran who helped spur the biolab conspiracy theory in the US.

Pandora Report: 4.1.2022

This week we discuss ongoing Russian attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and global response to the threat of WMD use in Ukraine. We also cover the Biden administration’s budget requests for science in the coming fiscal year, the WHO’s new strategy for genomic surveillance, and the United States’ new special representative to the BWC. We round out with a myriad of new publications, including one on hypoallergenic CRISPR kitties, and updates to our collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation.

Sign of the Times? Gruinard Island Is On Fire

Continuing with this decade’s general trend, an uninhabited Scottish island once used for germ warfare experiments in the early half of the 20th century caught fire this week. The island, 1 km off the mainland’s shore at its closest point, has long since been uninhabited. However, rumors of its secrets spread to the mainland over the decades as sheep, cows, and horses mysteriously died following anthrax tests on livestock during WWII, as revealed by a declassified film from the British Ministry of Defence. It even took the Ministry 24 years after the tests to mention the anthrax risk on the island’s warning signs, according to the BBC. The Ministry finally declared the island anthrax-free in 1990, further indicating these is little risk in this situation, but the internet was quick to point out how characteristic of the 2020s headlines about the “Anthrax Island” catching fire are. Check out the BBC’s documentary on the Dark Harvest Commando’s trip to the island in 1981 here.

Russia Continues Attacks On Ukrainian Healthcare Facilities

According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 70 attacks targeting hospitals, ambulances, and providers in Ukraine. That number, the organization states, continues to increase on a daily basis. As of this morning, the Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care put this number at 82 since the start of February, with most of the recent attacks being classified as either violence with heavy weapons or removal of healthcare assets. A number of videos of attacks on Ukrainian facilities continue to circulate online, including footage corroborated by the BBC and other outlets of the shelling of the newly refurbished hospital in Izyum on March 8. At the time, the hospital was treating “children, pregnant women and three newborn babies as well as soldiers and civilians injured in fierce fighting in the region, according to the Ukrainian authorities.” While many of these attacks have focused on damaging hospitals, transports, and supplies, the WHO has recorded the “”probable” abduction or detention of healthcare staff and patients.” Civilian hospitals are protected under Article 18 of the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Exceptions to this come only under circumstances such as when civilian healthcare facilities are being used to shield healthy combatants or if they are placed near legitimate military targets. Violations of this rule can be investigated by the International Criminal Court, allowing individual perpetrators to be prosecuted and punished if found guilty of war crimes.

WMD and CBRN Concerns in the War Persist

Science also reported this week that, although the power was restored on 14 March to the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, according to Anatolii Nosovskyi (Director of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv), looters made off radioactive isotopes used to calibrate instruments and pieces of radioactive waste. Concerns over these stem from the fact these materials could be used to help create a dirty bomb when mixed with conventional explosives. Chornobyl is not the only nuclear facility at risk, as facilities like Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology have also been attacked, in what Nosovskyi describes as “state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi called the Zaporizhzhya shelling a “close call” as the projectiles, thankfully, missed the facility’s reactor halls. The Science article explains the unique concerns about Chornobyl, writing, “But Chornobyl has a unique set of radioactive hazards. On 11 March, wildfires ignited in the nearby radioactive forests, which harbor radioisotopes that were disgorged in the accident and taken up by plants and fungi. Russian military activities have prevented firefighters from entering the exclusion zone, Nosovskyi says.” This comes amid continued international concerns the Russians could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.

This prompted the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction to release a statement this week decrying Russia’s invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine and the subsequent concerns of WMD use, writing “We are outraged that the threat of use of weapons of mass destruction has been evoked in the course of this conflict and that military action is creating serious CBRN risks for the population and the environment, with the potential for catastrophic results.” The statement continues, “Ukraine is a long-standing, constructive and committed member of the Global Partnership with an exemplary non-proliferation record, as demonstrated by its renouncing of nuclear weapons inherited from the former Soviet Union in 1994. For more than two decades, Global Partnership members have worked together with Ukraine to increase the safety and security of facilities dealing with sensitive nuclear, biological or chemical materials for exclusively peaceful purposes and to support and enhance protective capabilities against the abuse of such materials.” This has also prompted renewed discussion of nuclear responsibility, including this piece by Ariel Levite (former Principal Deputy Director General for Policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission) and Toby Dalton from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discussing the risks of a nuclear power accident and Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Biden White House Aims High in Science Budget Requests (Again)

President Biden submitted to Congress a 2023 budget request that calls for a 9.5% increase in domestic discretionary spending. Science reports “Biden is asking for a 19% increase at the National Science Foundation (NSF), a 9.6% boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 4.5% more for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and a 5% hike for NASA’s science missions. Once again, fighting climate change and boosting sustainable energy technologies also rank high among Biden’s research priorities.” However, last year, even with the Democrats in control, Biden’s first budget requests for science funding were seriously downsized in Congress’s final 2022 spending bill. Science explains, “For example, legislators shrank Biden’s proposed budget for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) from $6.5 billion to $1 billion, instead giving NIH’s existing institutes a boost of 5%. But ARPA-H remains a presidential favorite, with Biden requesting a total of $5 billion for it in 2023.” In an effort to garner bipartisan support, Biden requested to increase defense spending by 4% this year and has focused this request on addressing the federal deficit by reducing overall spending (though he still proposed to raise taxes on the super wealthy). The US budget deficit hit a record $1.7 trillion in the first half of the fiscal year, amid huge spending for pandemic relief including the $1.9 trillion economic rescue package passed last March. The budget request does push for increased funding for agencies like HHS and local public health funding, but some, including Secretary of HHS Xavier Becerra, seem worried this will not be enough to “finish the job” on COVID-19.

Kenneth D. Ward Named US Special Representative to the Biological Weapons Convention

The US Department of State and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie D. Jenkins announced this week that Kenneth Ward is the Biden administration’s new pick to represent the US at the BWC. Ward boasts a 30-year career in arms control and nonproliferation with the US Department of State and the former US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, having previously served as the US Ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, with previous assignments as the Director of the Office of Chemical and Biological Weapons Affairs in State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, and the Deputy Negotiator during the 2004-2007 WMD elimination effort in Libya. This is a critical time for the BWC, especially with its ninth review conference set to be held later this year, so strong US representation is a must.

WHO- One in Three Countries Do Not Have Genomic Surveillance Capacity

The WHO released its new 10-year strategy to improve genomic surveillance of pathogens globally. While few countries historically have been able to do genomic surveillance routinely in-country (largely because of how complicated and expensive the process is), COVID-19 has helped change this. WHO explains “Data collected by WHO show that in March 2021, 54% of countries had this capacity. By January 2022, thanks to the major investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number had increased to 68%. Even greater gains were made in the public sharing of sequence data: in January 2022, 43% more countries published their sequence data compared to a year before.” Importantly, the new “Global Genomic Surveillance Strategy for Pathogens with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential 2022-2032″ is not pathogen- or disease threat-specific. Rather, it aims to provide a high-level framework to “…leverage existing capacities, address barriers and strengthen the use of genomic surveillance worldwide.” It tries specifically to address the potential for the gaps and increased inequity the greater use of this technology might lead to as well, particularly in assessing workforce training and needs. Genomic surveillance proved critical in this pandemic in identifying the novel coronavirus and creating diagnostic tests and vaccines for it, so it is critical to continue investing in this technology and global capacity.

Is It Time For a National Biorisk Management Agency?

A new article in Health Security by Ritterson et al. discusses the merits of creating a new, centralized federal entity that would act as mission control for biorisk oversight in the United States. They explain the current patchwork system of biorisk management in the US federal government that is highly dependent on the pathogens researchers are using, where their funding comes from, and the location of the lab in question. As an example of this, they point to the fact that the CDC and USDA are able to regulate labs that possess agents on the select agent lists, but they have very little control over labs that are researching other transmissible agents. While they applaud the Biden administration for recognizing these risks, they write that the current plan of action doesn’t address major gaps, writing “Currently, the US government does not know the location of laboratories working with pathogens, what pathogens are being studied within these laboratories, or the conditions under which these laboratories are operating—something the US Government Accountability Office itself has repeatedly recognized as a serious issue.” Furthermore, they explain the challenges of oversight in privately funded institutions, who can technically do research on pathogens like H2N2 influenza, including trying to make it more transmissible, with no federal, state, or local entity having much power to do anything about it. While there is robust debate on the merits of such research, the authors of this piece conclude that a new federal entity with better oversight and enforcement mechanisms is needed to help address the conflicts of interest situations like this can create, as well as broader biorisk management issues in the US.

Addressing Inaccurate Information on Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration

The National Academies Press has released this new report, Addressing Inaccurate and Misleading Information About Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration and Communication in Southeast Asia, which discusses how scientists can work collaboratively across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify and address inaccuracies that could fuel mis- and disinformation. The authors explain that, “Some false claims may be addressed through sound scientific analysis, suggesting that scientists can help counter misinformation by providing evidence-based, scientifically defensible information that may discredit or refute these claims,” and continue by writing, ” Although the study focused on a scientific network primarily in Southeast Asia, it is relevant to scientists in other parts of the world.” Biodefense faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley contributed to this report.

The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters

Juliette Kayyem, former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Intergovernmental Affairs, recently released this book discussing the realities of living in a time “…of constant, consistent catastrophe, where things more often go wrong than they go right.” In The Devil Never Sleeps, Juliette Kayyem lays the groundwork for a new approach to dealing with disasters. Presenting the basic themes of crisis management, Kayyem amends the principles we rely on far too easily. Instead, she offers us a new framework to anticipate the “devil’s” inevitable return, highlighting the leadership deficiencies we need to overcome and the forward thinking we need to harness. It’s no longer about preventing a disaster from occurring, but learning how to use the tools at our disposal to minimize the consequences when it does. Kayyem also recently discussed disaster management with Jen Patja Howell on the Lawfare Podcast.

“Here CRISPR Kitty?”

In great news for all of us who just can’t seem to help petting cats even though we know we will suffer shortly afterward- Researchers at InBio, formerly known as Indoor Biotechnologies, reported in a new article published in The CRISPR Journal that they have made progress in treating people with cat allergies, though there is still the goal of creating a hypoallergenic cat. The journal explains, “About 15 percent of the population suffer allergies to domestic cats, which researchers have previously shown is largely attributable to what the Atlantic called “a pernicious little protein” — an allergen called Fel d 1 that is shed by all cats. In the new study, Nicole Brackett and colleagues at InBio performed a bioinformatics analysis of the Fel d 1 gene from 50 domestic cats to pinpoint conserved coding regions suitable for CRISPR editing. Further comparisons to genes in eight exotic felid species revealed a high degree of variation, suggesting that Fel d 1 is nonessential for cats. The researchers used CRISPR-Cas9 to disrupt Fel d 1 with high efficiency.” The authors claim Fel d 1, based on their data, is a viable candidate for gene deletion to help cat allergy sufferers by removing the relevant major allergen at the source. The journal also writes, “The study paves the way for further experiments exploring the use of CRISPR as a potential genetic therapy to muzzle the release of cat allergens.”

Categorizing Sequences of Concern by Function To Better Assess Mechanisms of Microbial Pathogenesis

Godbold et al.’s new minireview in Infection and Immunity tackles the question of how best to regularize descriptions of microbial pathogenesis. In other words, how should we describe what makes “bag bugs” bad? This review assesses adequacy of annotations of sequences with a role in microbial pathogenesis using existing controlled vocabularies and sequence databases. According to the article, “We relate the categorization of more than 2,750 sequences of pathogenic microbes through a controlled vocabulary called Functions of Sequences of Concern (FunSoCs). These allow for an ease of description by both humans and machines. We provide a subset of 220 fully annotated sequences in the supplemental material as examples. The use of this compact (∼30 terms), controlled vocabulary has potential benefits for research in microbial genomics, public health, biosecurity, biosurveillance, and the characterization of new and emerging pathogens.”

Fifth Annual Global Health 50/50 Report Released

Global Health 50/50 has just released their fifth annual report, “Boards for all?”, which presents the organization’s first-ever analysis of the gender and geography of who governs public health. According to Global Health 50/50, the field of global health is not living up to its name. The organization writes, “The report further presents its annual review of the equality- and gender-related policies and practices of 200 global organisations. Building on five years of evidence, it finds signs of rapid progress in building more equitable and gender-responsive global health organisations, while also revealing stagnating progress among a large subset of global health organisations. For the first time, the Index categorises all organisations by performance and presents dedicated pages for each organisation to explore and compare findings.” The report calls for global representation and equitable global health governance.

National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters Meeting

The next public meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters (NACIDD) will take place on Friday, April 1 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET. Registration for this event is required and can be accessed along with additional meeting information through the online event page. Join federal leaders, NACIDD members, distinguished guests, and other experts as we discuss topics on the challenges, opportunities, and priorities related to addressing the needs of people with disabilities.  Hear from Amy Nicholas, Senior Attorney Advisor, for the National Council on Disability, sharing “Lessons Learned on the Efficacy of Federal Programs and Policies for People with Disabilities Before, During, and After Disasters”.  The meeting will also be joined by Sachin Dev Pavithran, Ph.D., Executive Director, with the US Access Board, discussing, “Providing Temporary Aide and Accessible, Transportable Housing During Disaster Events”.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. Below are some highlights from the last couple of weeks, with the updates since last week in red:

Russia’s Lies About Bioweapons in Ukraine Make the World Less Safe

Wired released this article late this week discussing the importance of Ukraine’s labs to global public health and how Russian lies about them risk public health in Ukraine, in the region, and around the world.

Ukraine: Is a Chemical or Biological Attack Likely?

Chatham House released this explainer this week discussing the historical context of Russian CBW and disinformation as well as assessing the likelihood of such attacks in the current conflict, which the authors determine are unlikely but still concerning.

Have You Been Lied to About Ukrainian Biolabs? 

Drs. Filippa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz recently hosed this even on Twitter Space discussing the ongoing bioweapon claims targeting labs in Ukraine. A recording of the event is available here and the transcript can be found here.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

DTRA has released this fact sheet discussing its support for Ukrainian labs and other key facts, including details of Russia’s illegal and dangerous takeover of multiple Ukrainian-owned labs. They have also released a YouTube video discussing the program and the beneficial work it has done and continues to do in disarmament and public health.

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

The PRIF Blog published this piece explaining and refuting Russia’s BW claims while also addressing concerns that these claims could be used as a pretext for a chemical weapons attack against Ukraine. Read more here.

Council on Strategic Risks

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell at CSR authored a piece, “The Deeply Dangerous Spread of Russian Disinformation on Biological Weapons,” discussing the implications of Russia’s debunked claims. Of the idea that Russia might use WMDs in this war, they quote Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, writing “If Russia does commit such atrocities, “There would be a very strong and united international response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, both of which are banned by the chemical and biological weapons conventions,” Andy Weber emphasized.”

Nuclear Threat Initiative

Hayley Severance and Jacob H. Heckles with NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs team explained some of the dangers of this Russian propaganda, focusing on the division and confusion it sows and the potential for this to later allow Russia to be viewed as justified in their invasion and war against Ukraine. Check out the piece, “Russian Propaganda Established a Dangerous, Permissive Environment,” here.

Congressional Research Service

CRS, the public policy research institute of the United States Congress, released a CRS Insight addressing members’ of Congress questions and concerns regarding these laboratories. It discusses the dangers combat operations pose to these facilities and potential courses of action Congress might consider taking as a result of these issues.

CBW Events Ukraine FAQ Page

CBW Events has created a one-stop-shop for all your questions on this issue here. CBW Events is “a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare and its prevention are developed.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz Was Recently Quoted in Numerous Outlets Discussing These Claims

Dr. Koblentz has been working overtime taking interviews to help combat this disinformation. Below are some of the quotes he provided within the last couple of weeks across various news outlets and debunking sites.

Deutschlandfunk– “Hält sich Russland an die Biowaffenkonvention?” (German: “Does Russia Comply With the Biological Weapons Convention?”)

  • Audio recording features segments of an interview with Dr. Koblentz discussing Russia’s past with WMD claims and its interaction with the BWC

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists– “Amid False Russian Allegation of US “Biolabs” in Ukraine, It’s Worth Asking: What Is a Bioweapon?”

  • This article features Dr. Koblentz extensively, discussing in-depth factors like what characteristics would make for the ideal bioweapon, including considerations for blowback and potentially starting another pandemic

El Periodico– “El Ruido Sables Nucleares De Putin” (Spanish: “Putin’s Nuclear Saber Rattling”)

Daily Mail– “The 46 US Labs in Ukraine and the $200 Pentagon Program That Sparked a Propaganda War: How Ex-Soviet Facilities Adopted by America That House Pathogens Prompted Kremlin Bioweapons Claims in Putin’s Back Yard”

  • “‘These are all public health and veterinary labs,’ said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, according to Poynter. ‘None of them have been involved in biological warfare’.” 

The Washington Post– “A Legacy of ‘Secrecy and Deception’: Why Russia Clings to an Outlawed Chemical Arsenal”

  • “Novichok’s distinctive chemical formula differed from that of other known nerve agents, and because of this, Novichok was initially omitted from the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of banned substances. Russia could thus continue to tinker with the new weapon without technically violating their treaty obligations, said Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.”
  • ““Russia didn’t just inherit the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal; they also inherited the secrecy and deception that surrounded the program,” Koblentz said.”

Axios Science “Why Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use Are Hard to Investigate”

“What to watch: Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, says that, rather than use a chemical or biological weapon for an attack in Ukraine, there is a risk “Russia will invent or stage an event, claim it as an atrocity and use it domestically for escalating their commitment to the conflict.”

  • “Even if the U.S. and Ukrainians could expose this was staged or a hoax, on some level, the disinformation would be out there, and some would throw up their hands and say they don’t know and are going to sit it out,” he says.
  • Another concern for Koblentz is that unsubstantiated claims that bioweapons are being developed in Ukrainian labs that study and surveil pathogens like Crimean hemorrhagic fever could damage international cooperation on biosecurity and pathogen surveillance among labs around the world.

What’s next: The BCW is scheduled to meet in August to discuss how its mechanisms for resolving concerns about biological weapons compliance could be strengthened.

  • There had been signs over the past few years that parties may be willing to agree to measures that would facilitate verifying whether parties are complying. But “now there is no way it will be a constructive diplomatic event,” Koblentz says. “It’s been sacrificed for geopolitics.””

Bloomberg Quicktake– “Ukraine: Is Russia Planning to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

iNews– “How Russia’s Fake Claims About Ukraine Bioweapons Spread From Telegram Anti-Vaxxers to Fox News”

  • ““It goes back to the 1980s, when the KGB started a rumour that the United States occurred the HIV virus,” said Dr Greg Koblentz, Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.”

CNN What Matters– “Russia and Chemical Weapons: What You Need to Know”

  • Dr. Koblentz featured heavily in this article through a long interview discussing many facets of Russian CBW, including the difference between BW and CW, Russia’s obligations under international law, the potential for Russia to use such weapons against Ukraine, and more

Open– “No! Quelli in Ucraina Non Sono Laboratori Militari Per La Guerra Biologica” (Italian: “No! The Labs in Ukraine Are Not Biowarfare Labs”)

  • “Associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government , Gregory Koblentz, explains to Open why the Russian narrative of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine could be the first phase of a maneuver aimed at attributing to the A completely invented biological threat was born.”
  • “These laboratories are used to diagnose and conduct research on endemic diseases in Ukraine – explains Koblentz -, they are not designed or intended for use to conduct research on biological weapons. The concern is not whether Russia will take them over and use them to develop biological weapons. Moscow already has three large military microbiology facilities which it uses to conduct research and development on biological weapons. Instead, the concern is that Russia is leaking “evidence” fabricated in those labs and claiming to have uncovered a secret US-Ukraine program to develop biological weapons. Of course, such a statement would be nonsense.”
  • “The only way these laboratories could pose a danger would be if they were bombed, looted or occupied and unsuspecting individuals accidentally became infected with a leftover pathogen sample – continues the expert -, which was on site but no longer properly stored. . The WHO has told Ukraine to destroy the samples of high-risk pathogens in their laboratories for this reason ”.
  • “The United States and Ukraine have been transparent about the type of public health research conducted in these laboratories – concludes Koblentz -, as you can see on the US embassy website . The Defense Department has just released a new fact sheet explaining its assistance to Ukraine in this area. The BTRP strengthens biological health and safety in laboratories around the world and develops the capacity of these laboratories to diagnose and study diseases that pose a threat to public health in those countries. Since the onset of COVID-19, the program has also helped these countries respond to the pandemic by providing diagnostic kits, etc. “

EFE Verifica– “Nada Prueba Que Haya Laboratorios de Armas Biológicas en Ucrania, Como Afirma Rusia” (Spanish: “Nothing Prove That There Are Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine, As Russia Claims”)

  • “For his part, Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Politics and Government, recalls that in 1980 the Soviets spread the rumor that the US had “invented” the HIV virus and was being “used” as a biological weapon.”
  • “Since then, this type of disinformation campaign has been “quite aggressive” and has targeted not only the US, but also Georgia and Ukraine, stresses Koblentz, for whom these accusations are part “of a pattern” in propaganda Russian.”

Pandora Report: 3.25.2022

We’re back! We kick off this issue with a very special update from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists before getting into the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense’s recent meeting discussing the future of biodefense and biosecurity, more updates, and a number of great new publications and events to attend. We also included a brief update on why we were away last week, featuring plenty of photos of animals to brighten everyone’s day. A list of resources, updates, and faculty media features regarding Russia’s WMD disinformation is also at the end of this issue following our normal announcement section.

Has the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gone Rogue?

According to the Onion, America’s Finest News Source, our friends at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are demanding a whopping $10 trillion in unmarked bills, otherwise they will set their Doomsday Clock to midnight, destroying the Earth. Dr. Rachel Bronson, President and CEO of the Bulletin, was definitely quoted saying, “Citizens of Earth, we have long served as stewards of your puny globe, safeguarding it from destruction with our Doomsday Clock, and today we demand you recognize our sacrifice with a simple monetary donation—say, $10 trillion?” in a message to all UN member states. She continued with, “Since time immemorial, we overseers at the Bulletin have been responsible for averting countless catastrophes with this all-powerful timekeeping instrument, and now we ask: Will you be the generation that allows humanity to be extinguished for a measly few trillion dollars? You have heard our demands. My finger is already on the minute hand. Now what shall you do?” The Onion also reported in 2016 that the Bulletin moved the clock to 60 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to global catastrophe, following Arby’s threats to create a three-cheese jalapeno beef’n bacon melt. The clock currently sits at 100 seconds to midnight because of factors like “negative trends in nuclear and biological weapons, climate change, and a variety of disruptive technologies—all exacerbated by a corrupted information ecosphere that undermines rational decision making,” so they really took the beef’n bacon melt to heart.

North Korea Conducts First ICBM Test Since 2017

Japan’s Defense Ministry announced yesterday that a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. North Korea has not conducted such a test since 2017, during the “fire and fury” days of the Trump administration. Japanese State Minister of Defense Makoto Oniki told the press the missile likely was in the air for approximately 71 minutes before landing about 150 km west of the Oshima Peninsula off Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost major island. The missile was later confirmed to be a Hwasong-17, which is thought to be 82 feet long and is estimated to be the largest road-mobile ballistic missile system in the world. North Korea revealed the Hwasong-17 at a military parade in October 2020, with this week’s test launch from an airport near Pyongyang being its first full-range test, according to ABC News. Kyodo News cited an unnamed source in the Japanese government who claimed this might be the closest a DPRK missile has ever come to the Japanese mainland. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, currently attending a meeting with G7 leaders in Brussels, strongly condemned the launch and stated he would seek to work with G7 members in formulating a response to the test that violates UN Security Council resolutions. While Kim Jong Un declared a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs in 2018, he appeared to rescind it last January in instructing officials to “rapidly examine the issue on resuming” such testing, according to NK News. A likely new ICBM base was discovered earlier this year in Hwapyong-gun, just 25 km from the Chinese border in the north of the country, further indicating the moratorium was likely terminated. DPRK state media released propaganda videos dramatizing the massive missile’s launch, one of which quickly drew attention online for its over-the-top style (at 1:08 in the linked video). Korean Central News Agency (the state agency of the DPRK) announced this test was guided by Kim Jong Un in pursuit of a “powerful tool for nuclear attack” aimed to “contain” the United States.

Biodefense Students Conduct Vector Surveillance in Kenya for Spring Break

Biodefense Program students Michelle Grundahl (MS Student) and Danyale C. Kellogg (PhD Student and Managing Editor of the Pandora Report) recently returned from a trip to the Mpala Research Centre outside of Nanyuki, Kenya. On this trip, they assisted researchers working on grants under the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) and the Remote Emerging Disease Intelligence Network (REDI-NET). Grundahl explained some details of the trip, saying “Our focus was to support Mason professor, Dr. Von Fricken. His work in Kenya involves surveillance of vector-borne diseases using a One Health approach. Starting on day one, we had the opportunity to collect water and soil samples, leeches, and ticks…The 10 students on this trip were intensely involved in setting up laboratory equipment and working through protocols to support the REDI-NET surveillance program.” The pair were joined by a number of Kenyan scientists who are also involved with the project through the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. Grundahl and Kellogg previously attended the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties course, offered by USAMRIID and USAMRICD, together in the fall of 2021.

Meeting of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense- The Biological Threat Expanse: Current and Future Challenges to National Biodefense

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense met on Tuesday to discuss the expanding landscape of current and future biological threats, the roles and responsibilities of the federal government in assessing and preparing for various biological threats, and biological weapons, bioterrorism, and biological arms races with the public. The Commission explains, “In its 2015 bipartisan report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, the Commission described biological threats to the Nation and made 33 recommendations to optimize U.S. efforts to prevent, deter, prepare for, detect, respond to, attribute, recover from, and mitigate intentionally introduced, accidentally released, and naturally occurring biological events. Seven years later, the U.S. experience with COVID-19 continues to validate our original findings and the need for an Apollo Program for Biodefense as biological threats to the Nation continue to expand and increase.”

Biodefense Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, also testified during this event, providing insight on the future of biodefense (time stamp- 3:47:22). On the risks posed by dual use research of concern and effective biosafety and biosecurity risk management, Koblentz concluded: “Whether or not the current pandemic was caused by a laboratory accident, it does not mean the next pandemic won’t be. Indeed, efforts to prevent and prepare for the next pandemic, ironically, include a range of activities that serve to increase the risk posed by an accident. Given that existing national and international systems to ensure that such research is conducted safely, securely, and responsibly are already inadequate, we need a new global architecture for biorisk management that can address the growing challenges we face in this domain.” The event recording is available here.

Omicron Subvariant BA.2 Updates

The BA.2 subvariant, AKA “stealth Omicron,” of COVID-19, which spreads up to 80% faster than the original Omicron variant, was found to have doubled in the US over the last two weeks, making it the dominant subvariant in the country right now, according the CNBC. Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News this week that BA.2, which was already dominant in some European countries, is 50% to 60% more transmissible than Omicron. The University of Minnesota’s CIDRAP noted that, “Currently BA.2 makes up roughly one third of COVID-19 cases in the United States but will likely overtake Omicron this spring,” in an article from March 21. “When you look at the cases, they do not appear to be any more severe and they do not appear to evade immune responses either from vaccines or prior infection,” Fauci said. The WHO announced too that BA.2 has taken over as the dominant strain circulating globally. The Food and Drug Administration also announced on March 21 that the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet on April 6 to discuss boosters in light of Pfizer and Moderna’s submissions for EUAs for fourth doses of their COVID-19 vaccines.

Armed Services Committees’ Leadership Announces Selections for National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology

The leadership of the of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced their appointments to the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology, which was established by Sec. 1091 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). The National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology will conduct a thorough review of how advances in emerging biotechnology and related technologies will shape current and future activities of the Department of Defense, provide an interim report to the President of the United States and the Armed Services Committees within one year, and submit a final unclassified report within two years to the President and the committees, including recommendations for action by Congress and the federal government. Twelve appointed members will make up the Commission.

The leaders of the Armed Services Committees named the following appointees: Senator Alex Padilla, the Honorable Dov S. Zakheim (Senior Advisor at CSIS and former Undersecretary of Defense), Congressman Ro Khanna, Paul Arcangeli (current Staff Director of the House Armed Services Committee, set to retire on April 1), Senator Todd Young, Dr. Alexander Titus (former  Assistant Director for Biotechnology within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering), Congresswoman Stephanie Bice, and Dr. Jason Kelly (co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks).

SARS-CoV-2: International Investigation Under the WHO or BWC

Drs. Mirko Himmel and Stefan Frey recently published their policy brief article in Frontiers in Public Health discussing current debates about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and the complexities of the political and biological elements of this debate. They offer recommendations for potential courses of action under the World Health Organization’s umbrella and in respect to the Biological Weapons Convention. They provide insight to how a number of complex issues might be resolved, particularly as China continues to delay the investigation into the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by withholding evidence.

UNIDIR- Potential Outcomes of the Ninth BWC Review Conference

The UN Institute for Disarmament Research’s recently released this report authored by Dr. Jez Littlewood. It aims to provide “a forthright assessment of the risks, benefits, and financial implications of four different potential Review Conference outcomes,” including very limited, status quo, forward-looking, and negotiation outcomes. It was released in preparation for the Ninth Biological Weapons Review Conference, currently scheduled for August of this year, where States parties will have the opportunity to advance biological disarmament and determine the future course of this treaty. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs recently released this primer on the BWC too, covering the history of negotiations of the treaty, its current state, and the importance of this treaty in the modern world.

“Insidious Insights: Implications of Viral Vector Engineering for Pathogen Enhancement”

Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and co-authors recently published this article in Gene Therapy. In it they discuss the dangers of optimizing viral vectors and their properties, despite the benefits this would provide to clinical gene therapy. They write, “High potential for misuse is associated with (1) the development of universal genetic elements for immune modulation, (2) specific insights on capsid engineering for antibody evasion applicable to viruses with pandemic potential, and (3) the development of computational methods to inform capsid engineering.” They ultimately recommend that “…computational vector engineering and the publication of associated code and data be limited to AAV [(adeno-associated viruses)] until a technical solution for preventing malicious access to viral engineering tools has been established.”

CSIS Global Health Policy Center Coronavirus Crisis Update

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center recently released a new episode of its podcast, Live From Munich: Dr. Richard Hatchett “Pandemic Preparedness Needs to Be Viewed as a Security Challenge”. Dr. Hatchett reminds listeners that having just had a pandemic does not prevent outbreak of another, and that pandemic preparedness needs to be “viewed as a security challenge, not as a health challenge, not as a development challenge”. He points to lessons in vaccine manufacturing and financing arrangements that incentivize disease surveillance that can better prepare us for the next pandemic. “Many of the high-income countries see the value from a geopolitical and security perspective in making these investments. The challenge for the long term, obviously, will be whether these facilities can be successful, sustainable, and be sustained.”

WHO- “Emerging Trends and Technologies: A Horizon Scan for Global Public Health”

The World Health Organization released this report earlier this month identifying 15 new and emerging technologies and scientific advances that could have major impacts on global health in the coming decades. To do so, it “presents the findings of a global horizon scan, conducted by a group of international experts, on emerging technologies and trends relevant to global public health conducted in 2020 and 2021.” Identified issues include vaccine distribution, apps for disease screening, addressing dis- and misinformation, and machine learning for antibiotic discovery. Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London recently co-authored an article addressing issues similar to the latter in Nature Machine Learning discussing the dangers of using AI in drug development.

Curious Coincidence: A Journey To the Origins of COVID-19

MIT Technology Review released a new episode of their podcast discussing challenges in determining the origins of the pandemic, this time focusing on what is known about the disease’s emergence in Wuhan in late 2019. Hosted by investigative reporter Antonio Regalado, Curious Coincidence dives into the mysterious origins of COVID-19 by examining China’s trade in wild animals, the labs doing sensitive research on dangerous pathogens, and questions of whether a lab accident may have touched off a global pandemic. Dr. Laura H. Kahn also recently discussed these issues in her piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Building Public Trust in Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (PHEPR) Science: A Workshop

From the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to wildfires and floods, public health emergencies are becoming increasingly common and complex. Public trust in public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) science is key to a quick and effective response. Join the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a two-day public workshop on March 29th and 30th to examine issues of building public knowledge of and trust in PHEPR science enterprise–the institutions, the research process, and the researchers and practitioners. Learn more and register here.

Inaugural Public Meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Seniors and Disasters and National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters

Join Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell along with Assistant Secretary for Aging and Acting Administrator for Community Living Alison Barkoff, Wednesday, March 30 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET for the inaugural meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Seniors and Disasters (NACSD) and National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters (NACIDD). Advanced registration for this meeting is required and can be accessed, along with additional meeting information, through the online event page. During this joint meeting, committee members will be sworn into service and begin a national discussion with federal subject matter experts on the challenges, opportunities, and priorities in meeting the unique health needs of older adult populations and people with disabilities during and after disasters and public health emergencies.

WHO Outreach and Engagement Consultant Job Opening Announcement

The purpose of this consultancy is to provide technical  input related to the projects of the emerging technologies, research prioritization and support (EPS) unit on dual-use research of concern as part of the “Reducing Biological Proliferation Risks Posed by Dual Use Research of Concern – (DURC)” and end to end research process optimization as part of the project “Strengthening WHO processes to accelerate timelines linking R&D with access”. The work will advance the implementation of the corresponding work plans of the two projects. Due to the COVID restrictions, the consultant will perform the work remotely from his/her home location. The consultant will need to be available during Geneva office hours (9h00-18h00 CET). Learn more and apply here.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. Below are some highlights from the last couple of weeks:

Have You Been Lied to About Ukrainian Biolabs? 

Drs. Filippa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz recently hosed this even on Twitter Space discussing the ongoing bioweapon claims targeting labs in Ukraine. A recording of the event is available here and the transcript can be found here.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

DTRA has released this fact sheet discussing its support for Ukrainian labs and other key facts, including details of Russia’s illegal and dangerous takeover of multiple Ukrainian-owned labs. They have also released a YouTube video discussing the program and the beneficial work it has done and continues to do in disarmament and public health.

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

The PRIF Blog published this piece explaining and refuting Russia’s BW claims while also addressing concerns that these claims could be used as a pretext for a chemical weapons attack against Ukraine. Read more here.

Council on Strategic Risks

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell at CSR authored a piece, “The Deeply Dangerous Spread of Russian Disinformation on Biological Weapons,” discussing the implications of Russia’s debunked claims. Of the idea that Russia might use WMDs in this war, they quote Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, writing “If Russia does commit such atrocities, “There would be a very strong and united international response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, both of which are banned by the chemical and biological weapons conventions,” Andy Weber emphasized.”

Nuclear Threat Initiative

Hayley Severance and Jacob H. Heckles with NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs team explained some of the dangers of this Russian propaganda, focusing on the division and confusion it sows and the potential for this to later allow Russia to be viewed as justified in their invasion and war against Ukraine. Check out the piece, “Russian Propaganda Established a Dangerous, Permissive Environment,” here.

Congressional Research Service

CRS, the public policy research institute of the United States Congress, released a CRS Insight addressing members’ of Congress questions and concerns regarding these laboratories. It discusses the dangers combat operations pose to these facilities and potential courses of action Congress might consider taking as a result of these issues.

CBW Events Ukraine FAQ Page

CBW Events has created a one-stop-shop for all your questions on this issue here. CBW Events is “a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare and its prevention are developed.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz Was Recently Quoted in Numerous Outlets Discussing These Claims

Dr. Koblentz has been working overtime taking interviews to help combat this disinformation. Below are some of the quotes he provided within the last couple of weeks across various news outlets and debunking sites.

Daily Mail– “The 46 US Labs in Ukraine and the $200 Pentagon Program That Sparked a Propaganda War: How Ex-Soviet Facilities Adopted by America That House Pathogens Prompted Kremlin Bioweapons Claims in Putin’s Back Yard”

  • “‘These are all public health and veterinary labs,’ said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, according to Poynter. ‘None of them have been involved in biological warfare’.” 

The Washington Post– “A Legacy of ‘Secrecy and Deception’: Why Russia Clings to an Outlawed Chemical Arsenal”

  • “Novichok’s distinctive chemical formula differed from that of other known nerve agents, and because of this, Novichok was initially omitted from the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of banned substances. Russia could thus continue to tinker with the new weapon without technically violating their treaty obligations, said Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.”
  • ““Russia didn’t just inherit the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal; they also inherited the secrecy and deception that surrounded the program,” Koblentz said.”

Axios Science “Why Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use Are Hard to Investigate”

“What to watch: Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, says that, rather than use a chemical or biological weapon for an attack in Ukraine, there is a risk “Russia will invent or stage an event, claim it as an atrocity and use it domestically for escalating their commitment to the conflict.”

  • “Even if the U.S. and Ukrainians could expose this was staged or a hoax, on some level, the disinformation would be out there, and some would throw up their hands and say they don’t know and are going to sit it out,” he says.
  • Another concern for Koblentz is that unsubstantiated claims that bioweapons are being developed in Ukrainian labs that study and surveil pathogens like Crimean hemorrhagic fever could damage international cooperation on biosecurity and pathogen surveillance among labs around the world.

What’s next: The BCW is scheduled to meet in August to discuss how its mechanisms for resolving concerns about biological weapons compliance could be strengthened.

  • There had been signs over the past few years that parties may be willing to agree to measures that would facilitate verifying whether parties are complying. But “now there is no way it will be a constructive diplomatic event,” Koblentz says. “It’s been sacrificed for geopolitics.””

Bloomberg Quicktake– “Ukraine: Is Russia Planning to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

iNews– “How Russia’s Fake Claims About Ukraine Bioweapons Spread From Telegram Anti-Vaxxers to Fox News”

  • ““It goes back to the 1980s, when the KGB started a rumour that the United States occurred the HIV virus,” said Dr Greg Koblentz, Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.”

CNN What Matters– “Russia and Chemical Weapons: What You Need to Know”

  • Dr. Koblentz featured heavily in this article through a long interview discussing many facets of Russian CBW, including the difference between BW and CW, Russia’s obligations under international law, the potential for Russia to use such weapons against Ukraine, and more

Open– “No! Quelli in Ucraina Non Sono Laboratori Militari Per La Guerra Biologica” (Italian: “No! The Labs in Ukraine Are Not Biowarfare Labs”)

  • “Associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government , Gregory Koblentz, explains to Open why the Russian narrative of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine could be the first phase of a maneuver aimed at attributing to the A completely invented biological threat was born.”
  • “These laboratories are used to diagnose and conduct research on endemic diseases in Ukraine – explains Koblentz -, they are not designed or intended for use to conduct research on biological weapons. The concern is not whether Russia will take them over and use them to develop biological weapons. Moscow already has three large military microbiology facilities which it uses to conduct research and development on biological weapons. Instead, the concern is that Russia is leaking “evidence” fabricated in those labs and claiming to have uncovered a secret US-Ukraine program to develop biological weapons. Of course, such a statement would be nonsense.”
  • “The only way these laboratories could pose a danger would be if they were bombed, looted or occupied and unsuspecting individuals accidentally became infected with a leftover pathogen sample – continues the expert -, which was on site but no longer properly stored. . The WHO has told Ukraine to destroy the samples of high-risk pathogens in their laboratories for this reason ”.
  • “The United States and Ukraine have been transparent about the type of public health research conducted in these laboratories – concludes Koblentz -, as you can see on the US embassy website . The Defense Department has just released a new fact sheet explaining its assistance to Ukraine in this area. The BTRP strengthens biological health and safety in laboratories around the world and develops the capacity of these laboratories to diagnose and study diseases that pose a threat to public health in those countries. Since the onset of COVID-19, the program has also helped these countries respond to the pandemic by providing diagnostic kits, etc. “

EFE Verifica– “Nada Prueba Que Haya Laboratorios de Armas Biológicas en Ucrania, Como Afirma Rusia” (Spanish: “Nothing Prove That There Are Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine, As Russia Claims”)

  • “For his part, Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Politics and Government, recalls that in 1980 the Soviets spread the rumor that the US had “invented” the HIV virus and was being “used” as a biological weapon.”
  • “Since then, this type of disinformation campaign has been “quite aggressive” and has targeted not only the US, but also Georgia and Ukraine, stresses Koblentz, for whom these accusations are part “of a pattern” in propaganda Russian.”

Pandora Report: 3.11.2022

Our major focus this week is on Russia’s continued claims that the US is supporting WMD development in Ukraine, ranging from claims lodged at DTRA CTR labs to assertions the US is helping the Ukrainians make a dirty bomb and chemical weapons. Multiple organs of the US government have indicated the Kremlin may use chemical or biological weapons or create a false flag operation to justify their claims about CTR and their invasion of Ukraine. We also discuss the ODNI’s release of the Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment, which includes a dedicated health security section this year. We have also included a number of fascinating new publications, including reports on the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in North Korea, China’s global health leadership ambitions, and a report discussing balancing protecting patients from infections and pandemic response in a hospital setting. Finally, we discuss updates on the pandemic as it remains far from over, death counts continue to soar in places like Hong Kong, and it presents an issue for Ukrainians fleeing to other countries.

Admin note: There will be no Pandora Report next week (3/18). The weekly report will resume on 3/25.

Russia Continues Its WMD Disinformation With Help As Concerns Grow About False Flag Operations

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Ministry of Defense (MOD) continued their barrage of claims alleging the US is helping the Ukrainians make WMDs, this time asserting the Russian military found evidence the Ukrainians staged an emergency clean-up to eradicate “…traces of the military-biological programme, in Ukraine, financed by the [US Department of Defense].” Major General Igor Konashenkov delivered this latest claim, which was quickly parroted by state media. He claimed pathogens such as the causative agents of plague, anthrax, and cholera were being made into bioweapons in US-funded laboratories throughout Ukraine. The MFA also claimed on March 6 that the Security Service of Ukraine and Azov Battalion “mined a reactor at an experimental nuclear facility at the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology” in order to “accuse Russia of creating an ecological catastrophe.” The Atlantic Council noted that this claim was based on a supposed alert from the Russian MOD and was supplemented by quotes from the state-owned outlet, Sputnik.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Tweet further alleging DTRA CTR-sponsored labs are bioweapons development facilities.

The Sino-Russian Relationship Isn’t Complicated Enough To Keep China Away From These Conspiracy Theories Apparently

Various Chinese outlets have already been sharing Russia’s narrative, however the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has more formally begun doing so as well. PRC MFA spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, made several comments at a press briefing this week accusing the US of violating the BWC at its labs in Ukraine. He accused the US of preventing multilateral verifications of these facilities from taking place before saying, “What is the real intention of the United States? What exactly has it done? These have always been the source of misgivings for the international community.” A description of DTRA’s CTR program’s accomplishments in its first 25 years is available here.

This is also not China’s first time making such claims. Throughout and following the Korean War, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and China claimed the United States used biological weapons on large scale in both China and North Korea. Though Soviet Central Committee documents indicating these claims were known to be false were declassified in 1998, both North Korea and China have continued to make these claims over the decades. As we previously covered, China has a number of nonsense claims they have made recently too, including assertions that the US engineered COVID-19 at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, that the US military introduced SARS-CoV-2 to Wuhan at the World Military Games in 2019, and even that the Omicron variant entered the country on a piece of mail from Canada.

This comes at a time when many are questioning the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship, as Xi Jinping tries to balance supporting Putin while shielding his country from the economic hardship and isolation the world has levied on Russia. It also remains unclear how much Chinese officials actually knew about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, though it is thought they had at least some level of advance knowledge and asked Putin to wait until after the Beijing Olympics. The two countries issued a joint statement last month, titled “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development”. It included a section on the BWC and claims the US is not fulfilling its obligations under the treaty, stating “The sides emphasize that domestic and foreign bioweapons activities by the United States and its allies raise serious concerns and questions for the international community regarding their compliance with the BWC.” It later stated, “The sides call on the U.S. and its allies to act in an open, transparent, and responsible manner by properly reporting on their military biological activities conducted overseas and on their national territory, and by supporting the resumption of negotiations on a legally binding BWC Protocol with an effective verification mechanism.”

Russian Outlets’ Lazy Attempts at Disinfo Somehow Still Have the Desired Effect

This all somehow managed to grow worse late this week as the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Over the course of the hearing, she stated “Ukraine has biological research facilities which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops…Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of. So we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.” She later stated that, should there be any of use of CBW in Ukraine, the Russians would be behind it. Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik were quick to re-share the unedited clip, which their followers concluded meant Nuland was confirming the US has biological weapons facilities in Ukraine. This was echoed by the likes of American conservative commentators Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens on their respective platforms. RT did not have to do any work to splice the clips of Nuland, create confusion about the context, or anything to get this clip spread around, viewed millions of times, and touted as proof the US was lying about having BW facilities in Ukraine. They simply played an accurate statement from the undersecretary and let their audiences do the rest. This has been a rapid progression from the situation a couple weeks ago, with Foreign Policy’s Justin Ling writing, “In less than two weeks, a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs has gone from a fringe QAnon Twitter account to becoming a major rallying cry for both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the U.S. far-right.”

In case it somehow is not clear enough already- the terms “biological research facilities” and “biolabs” do not mean the same thing as “biological weapons facilities”. A biological research facility just describes an institution or building where research is being conducted in some area of biology. Different types of hospital research labs, labs at zoos, numerous university labs, and all sorts of institutions can accurately be described as “biological research facilities”. As a result of the threat Russian forces pose to these facilities in Ukraine, the WHO advised Ukraine on Thursday to destroy high-threat pathogens from their public health labs to prevent “any potential spills” that could cause disease in the population.

Birds of Mass Destruction?

On Thursday, the Russian MOD released a video discussing the supposed results of their report about documents from “military biological activities of the USA in Ukraine”. The MOD included screenshots of various Power Point slides and materials from DTRA throughout the presentation, including an unclassified slide discussing the risk of emerging infections in insectivorous bats in Ukraine and Georgia and the need for interagency efforts to stem the threat to public health this poses. The video then makes a number of wild claims that make even some of the most ardent conspiracy theorists look comparatively poised and logically sound. Such claims include that the US wants to release migrating birds carrying highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza. Another claim is that a Project R-781 is focused on US efforts to use bats as carriers for biological weapons. This is simply non-sensical. The US does not conduct bioweapons R&D, it certainly would not need to do so in Ukraine if it wanted to, and releasing birds, bats, and insects carrying highly infectious diseases would likely harm the US as well as any intended target. It is highly unlikely the Russians believe any of this to be true and they are just using this as an attempt to keep up the pressure in their disinformation firehose and create frustrations and tensions where possible.

A Note On Biosafety Levels

Some of those re-sharing these posts from Russian outlets have also focused their attention on the biosafety levels (BSL) of the CTR labs in Ukraine, claiming they must be making bioweapons because they have certain BSL designations. Those making these claims seem to either focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 designation, somehow concluding this means the Ukrainian labs must also be at this level and, by extension, they are making bioweapons. Others focus on the term “high containment lab”, either assuming or purposefully deceitfully claiming that term means the labs are BSL-4 labs by definition. First, Ukraine does not have a BSL-4 facility. Second, the term “high containment lab” refers to both BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities. Third, many of these claims are based on an out-of-context clip of a chapter of a National Academies Press publication– “Biosecurity Challenges of the Global Expansion of High-Containment Biological Laboratories: Summary of a Workshop”. This specific chapter discusses local resources and regulations for high containment labs in Ukraine in which the authors discuss the differences in how Ukrainian labs are rated (lab designation in Ukraine is inverted, so 1 is the highest risk and 4 is the lowest) and why this makes it especially important to consider what specific permits Ukrainian labs have that allow them to handle certain pathogens. Furthermore, the biosafety level of a lab is not an indicator of what that facility is doing. Rather, BSLs are sets of biocontainment precautions required to work with biological agents in laboratories. They are sometimes called pathogen, protection, or containment levels, the latter of which uses the designations P1-P4 instead.

For context, BSL-4 is the highest level of precautions and is used for work with agents that can easily be transmitted as aerosols in the lab, cause severe to fatal disease in humans, and for which there are no available vaccines or treatments. Some BSL-4 agents include Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, and Nipah viruses. The other levels can vary in terms of which pathogens are handled in them depending on the conditions and the work being conducted, such as if there were a high chance an agent would become aerosolized while being worked with, which would necessitate a higher BSL. Common BSL-3 agents include SARS classic, SARS-CoV-2, MERS-CoV, Rift Valley Fever virus, and even Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. Some examples of potential BSL-2 agents include pathogenic strains of E. coli, Hepatitits A, B, and C viruses, HIV, and even prions, which transmit diseases like Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (the human version of Mad Cow Disease). Things like non-pathogenic strains of E. coli and different types of Staphylococcus are frequently handled in BSL-1, including in labs at secondary education institutions.

While abiding by federal law and research guidelines, different institutions in the US place different agents at different BSL levels based on their facility’s capabilities, what they plan to do with an agent, and what risks may come of such work. You can see Stanford University’s list and guidelines here, for example. The Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories, the document that helps labs make protocol-driven risk assessments and determine what BSL they should work in is also freely available online

Furthermore, a BSL-4 designation does not imply the lab is government-run, and certainly does not mean it is necessarily doing offensive research. Using the US as an example, of the 13 BSL-4 labs in the US, three are housed at universities – Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, Georgia State University’s High Containment Core, and the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory. Kansas State University also has its BSL-4 National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction. Fewer than 1/5 of BSL-4 facilities globally are actually defense laboratories and two are even privately-owned, according to Global Bio Labs. USA Today also found a few years ago that there are around 200 BSL-3 labs (at least) in the US, meaning many Americans live near one. Meanwhile, the labs in Ukraine are below BSL-4 and they are well-established centers providing important public health research and services. In fact, the closest BSL-4s to Ukraine are the Republican Research and Practical Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Minsk, Belarus and two facilities in Hungary. Furthermore, the US has been open from the beginning about the purpose and scope of the Lugar-Nunn Cooperative Threat Reduction program as well. And while just one-quarter of countries with BSL-4 labs score well on best practice indicators for biosafety and biosecurity, the Lugar-Nunn program has helped ensure partner countries do meet these requirements consistently, limiting the chances of accidents.

Is This All a Set Up For a False Flag Operation? The US Government Weighs In

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented on this ongoing issue on Twitter earlier in the week, stating, “We took note of Russia’s false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories.” She re-iterated that this is something Russia and China have done repeatedly, adding that the US is in full-compliance with its obligations under the BWC and CWC. She also stated, “It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny.” She concluded with a warning that Russia might look to use chemical or biological weapons to create a false flag operation, writing, “Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s tweets concerning Russian allegations the US is supporting chemical and biological weapons development in Ukraine.

Finally, the US State Department also released an official statement on the Kremlin’s claims. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price’s delivered the following statement:

The Kremlin is intentionally spreading outright lies that the United States and Ukraine are conducting chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine.  We have also seen PRC officials echo these conspiracy theories.  This Russian disinformation is total nonsense and not the first time Russia has invented such false claims against another country.  Also, these claims have been debunked conclusively and repeatedly over many years.

As we have said all along, Russia is inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine. The United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine, it is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, and it does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere. It is Russia that has active chemical and biological weapons programs and is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention.

Finally, Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very crimes that Russia itself is perpetrating. These tactics are an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attacks on Ukraine. We fully expect Russia to continue to double down on these sorts of claims with further unfounded allegations.

While it remains unclear if the Russians are interested in using CBW or trying to stage a false flag operation, there are still inherent dangers to these types of weapons that dissuade actors from their use, though some still certainly do use these kinds of weapons. Furthermore, as Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Jez Littlewood pointed out in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this week, this could also end up damaging the Biological Weapons Convention, set for its five-year review later this year. They also rightfully point out that the US identified a number of countries as BW threats, including the DPRK, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Iraq, the latter of which is arguably the most infamous intelligence failure of the US this century. Few could forget the images of Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up a model vial of anthrax spores during a meeting of the UNSC on Iraq’s alleged WMD program in 2003. While this assessment was not just based on US intelligence alone, this was later something he described as a “blot” on his career, stating “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.” While the US has not been perfect, the labs under DTRA’s CTR program have demonstrated time and time again that they are legitimately conducting peaceful research and that they provide benefits to the public health of the region.

Other Helpful Resources On This Topic:

  • EUvsDisinfo released this week’s Disinfo Review, Weapons of Mass Delusion covering these efforts, finding that a quarter of Russia’s disinformation tropes pertain to the lie that the US has secret labs encircling the country.
  • Here is the page on the Biological Threat Reduction Program on the US Embassy in Ukraine’s website. Many conspiracy theorists, right-wing American pundits, and Russian outlets claim this page was taken down, yet it is still live and has all the PDFs discussing the diagnostic labs in Lviv, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipro, and Vinnytsia that some insist are gone from the site.
  • Here is PolitiFact’s fact check of the first few claims in this new series lodged by Russia.

US Surgeon General Releases RFI on COVID-19 Disinformation

On a related note, to help combat the effects of disinformation in the United States, the US Surgeon General, VADM Vivek Murthy (USPHS), has issued a formal request for information to major tech companies, asking them to send data and information on the prevalence of COVID-19 mis-/disinformation on their platforms. This is part of the Biden administration’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and companies will have until May 2 to comply with the RFI. Dr. Murthy also has asked healthcare professionals to submit their testimonies about how COVID-19 mis- and disinformation have impacted their patients and communities. This comes as a physician group, No License for Disinformation, and their calls for state medical board to take disciplinary action against physicians who deliberately spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic gain more traction.

WHO Issues Situation Report on the Russo-Ukrainian War

As the news has been filled with reports of Russian attacks on civilians and healthcare institutions, including the bombing of a maternity ward and children’s hospital in Mariupol, the WHO has released its first situation report on Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion. The report indicates over 18 million of Ukraine’s population have been affected, including 1.2 million refugees, 160,000 internally displaced person, at least 553 civilian injuries, and 249 civilian deaths. It notes that conflict related trauma and injuries are currently exacerbated by a lack of access to healthcare facilities as well as a lack of medicine and supplies. Importantly, it also explains there is an excess of morbidity and death from common illnesses such as noncommunicable diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.) and acute maternal, newborn, and child illnesses. The spread of infectious diseases is on the rise in Ukraine as well, including COVID-19, measles, polio, TB, HIV and diarrheal diseases. This is due to widespread destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure, inadequate vaccination coverage, lack of access to medicines and medical care, safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene as well as population movements and crowding. Ukraine faced a polio outbreak and was just pulling out of weeks of record high COVID-19 case counts when Russia invaded on 24 February. Ukraine has a relatively low vaccination rate and the government was struggling with vaccine hesitancy prior to the invasion. The WHO is continuing to monitor the situation and trying to help the Ukrainian Ministry of Health in coordinating the health response.

World Surpasses 6 Million COVID-19 Deaths As the Pandemic Drags On

The pandemic is very much not over, with the world surpassing 6.03 million official COVID-19 deaths Thursday. Worse yet, these are only confirmed deaths, with the true count likely being much higher. This horror is inescapable in places like Hong Kong right now, where the death count is continuing to soar as officials race to test all 7.5 million Hong Kongers three times this month to try and maintain the mainland’s zero-COVID strategy. Death rates also remain high in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and other Eastern European countries, which does not bode well with over 1 million Ukrainian refugees flooding in to these places. Despite this, a 136-page report written by two dozen experts, many of whom advised President Biden, was released this week entitled, “Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap to Living with Covid.” This report argues the US pandemic response should shift from being focused only on COVID-19 to focusing on a system where prevention, mitigation, and treatment efforts are focused on a number of respiratory illnesses, including influenza and COVID-19. They do stress this “next normal” will not be like 2019, but that this is how to best deal with pandemic fatigue and more diverse health threats as case counts in the US decline.

US Intelligence Community Releases Annual Threat Assessment

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has released its unclassified 2022 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (IC). This year’s assessment includes an entire section dedicated to health security, covering infectious diseases and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, biological weapons, and anomalous health incidents (AHIs). Key assessments include that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue to strain health systems, possibly aiding the spread of other diseases; that countries around the world remain vulnerable to the emergence of a new novel pathogen that could cause a worse pandemic; that economic fallout from the pandemic will continue to challenge governments and hinder human development, particularly in the developing world; and that shortcomings in pandemic response may inspire adversaries to consider developing or using biological weapons.

The brief sub-section on biological weapons assesses, “Global shortcomings in preparedness for the pandemic and questions surrounding the origins of the COVID-19
virus and biosecurity may inspire some adversaries to consider options related to biological weapons developments.” It states that advances in dual-use technology like bioinformatics, synthetic biology, and genomic editing, could help enable the development of new bioweapons that are able to complicate detection, attribution, and treatment. It also addresses ongoing efforts by China, Iran, and Russia to tout their individual and collaborative efforts to improve biosecurity while also making false claims about US laboratories pertaining to the origin of COVID-19, biosafety breaches, vaccines, and bioweapons. It concludes that this messaging will likely be amplified ahead of the Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which is held every five years and is schedule to convene in mid-2022.

The sub-section on AHIs states that, “IC agencies assess with varying levels of confidence that most reported health incidents can be explained by medical conditions, or environmental or technical factors and that it is unlikely that a foreign actor—including Russia—is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign involving hundreds of incidents without detection.” This is in reference to reports of Havana Syndrome, a condition first reported in 2016 by US and Canadian diplomats serving in Cuba with symptoms including ringing in the ears, vertigo and nausea, and cognitive difficulties. There are a number of speculations about what caused this, including theories that the Russians are using electromagnetic energy and ultrasound to target US and Canadian personnel.

This section of the threat assessment also summarizes some of the findings of 2021’s Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins, indicating that four IC elements assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 was a result of zoonotic spillover while one assesses with moderate confidence that it was the result of a laboratory-associated incident. The same assessment also addressed concerns the virus was a bioweapons or genetically engineered, writing “We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.”

Three reports that Nature announced in February 2022 discussing SARS-CoV-2 origins have caused quite a stir recently as well. Two of the reports traced the original outbreak of COVID-19 back to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which sold live animals, in Wuhan, Hubei Province. A third report suggests that SARS-CoV-2 did spill over from animals- potentially those at the Huanan Market- to humans at least twice in November and December 2019. These reports include genetic analyses of samples collected from the market and infected people in December 2019 and January 2020 in addition to geolocation analyses connecting many of the samples to a specific portion of the market where live animals were sold. Important to note, however, is that these are still preprints and have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals, though some argue they do add more weight to the idea that the pandemic started at the Huanan Market despite not being definitive.

GAO’s Chris P. Currie Testifies Before Senate Committee on Opportunities to Improve National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation

The Director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, Chris Currie, testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Opportunities to Address National Strategy and Programmatic Challenges pertaining to biodefense. His testimony addressed GAO studies in this area from December 2009 through August 2021, focused on efforts to implement the National Biodefense Strategy and strengthen biodefense preparedness, as well as ongoing challenges to DHS’s biosurveillance and biodetection efforts. Currie stated that GAO determined the US lacks “a set of defined capabilities for responding to nationally significant biological incidents, an interagency process for assessing and communicating exercise priorities, an interagency process for agencies to consistently report on the
capabilities exercised in after-action reviews, and routine monitoring at the interagency level of exercises and real-world incidents in order to evaluate lessons learned across the government, identify patterns and possible root causes for systemic challenges, and make recommendations to address these challenges.” He also discussed pathways to changing the National Biosurveillance Integration Center’s charge, DHS’s struggles to justify updating detection systems rendering it over-focused on aerosolized attacks, and how DHS can mitigate risk in Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21) acquisition. Read his statement and the GAO recommendations here.

Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit Sees CEPI Secure $1.5 Billion in Funding

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) secured $1.535 billion in funding over the course of the UK’s Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit this week. This is in support of CEPI’s goal of being able to produce a new vaccine for newly detected COVID-19 variants within 100 days of detection. This 100 day goal relies on accelerating global genomic surveillance to quickly identify new pandemic threats. The UK pledged $211 million, Indonesia (current G20 President) gave $5 million, and the US pledged $150 million, among other donations from other top donors including the governments of Japan, Norway, Germany, and Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Wellcome. This did not fully cover CEPI’s goal of $3.5 billion over the next five years, though it certainly puts them well on their way. According to CEPI’s statement, “CEPI’s plan will reduce the risk posed by epidemics and pandemics by developing vaccines for known disease threats (such as Lassa fever, MERS and Nipah virus), and build on the scientific advances made during COVID-19 to prepare in advance for ‘Disease X’- the threat of an unknown pathogen with pandemic potential.” Read USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s statement on the funding and push to deploy new vaccines for new COVID-19 variants within 100 days of detection here.

RUSI Occasional Paper- Remote Assessment of North Korea’s Chemical Weapons, Feasible or Not?

The Royal United Services Institute has released a new report, “Remote Assessment of North Korea’s Chemical Weapons, Feasible or Not?” discussing how open source research and remote sensing technologies might be used to assess North Korea’s CW capability. To do this, the authors use a case study approach focusing on the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in South Pyongan Province. Their research process included gathering data and information to build a case study that could be used to test this approach, analysis and assessment of the chemical activities and determination of whether those activities have relevance for CW production, and analysis of the overlap between the signatures of chemical activity and CW specifics at the Namhung Complex, followed by examination of how remote sensing might be able to support further assessment of CW capability. They conclude that the Namhung Complex is not a site used purely for CW production, but that it does likely retain activities relevant for CW. They determine for an open-source approach to be of the most value, the method would have to be replicated across the DPRK’s chemical industry. Furthermore, they state analyses should consider CW production as a network instead of focusing too much on individual sites. They conclude that, “…while remote sensing tools will not be a silver bullet in assessing the status, scope and scale of North Korea’s CW programme, they can be used to refine hypotheses about North Korea’s CW capability.”

APIC Releases New Recommendations for Balancing Patient Safety and Pandemic Response

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) has released its new call to action, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Recommendations for Balancing Patient Safety and Pandemic Response, a Call to Action on Improving our National Strategy for Pandemic Preparedness and Patient Safety”. It outlines a number of recommendations and steps to implement them including: developing next-generation universal personal protective equipment; normalizing the use of masks by the general public during times of increased infectious disease threats; addressing supply chain failures, including personnel with IPC expertise on healthcare system incident command and emergency response teams; putting properly trained personnel in long-term care, nursing homes, and other high-risk settings; building and implementing infection prevention and control surge capacity; increasing capacity for testing and contact tracing; ensuring rapid data sharing and interoperability around infection surveillance data; establishing strategies and actions to build disease confidence; and funding pandemic preparedness workforce capacity training.

Biodefense PhD program alumna and current Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School, Dr. Saskia Popescu, co-authored a portion of this report, “Managing Communications During a Pandemic”.

CFR- The COVID-19 Pandemic and China’s Global Health Leadership

Dr. Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, has released this new CFR report discussing China’s attempts to gain prominence in global health leadership and opportunities for the United States to re-assert itself in this area. In it he discusses China’s earlier attempts to turn its comparative success in managing COVID-19 into taking center stage in global leadership. However, he explains that its initial mishandling of the outbreak undermined the country’s international reputation, harming its ability to project soft power and strengthen its international image. Recent developments with highly transmissible variants have also challenged China’s draconian outbreak response measures and called into questions the efficacy of Chinese vaccines. He cautions the country is also heading towards a wider immunity gap between its population and the rest of the world, writing “The zero-COVID strategy will be extremely costly and highly dangerous: a small omicron outbreak in China could quickly develop into multiple larger outbreaks across the country, sending shock waves through society and the economy and intensifying the disruption of global supply chains and inflation pressures worldwide.” He concludes with a number of recommendations for the Biden administration, urging that the US should cooperate with Beijing in this area when it is helpful (such as in disease surveillance, response capacity-building, and vaccine distribution) while also scaling up US health diplomacy efforts and forming a bloc with allies to increase the WHO’s authority. This report is available here from CFR.

Insidious Insights: Implications of Viral Vector Engineering for Pathogen Enhancement

Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, has co-authored this new article in Gene Therapy. In it, the authors discuss how viral vector engineering offers enormous benefits, but brings a dual use risk pertaining to pathogen enhancement. They explain that optimizing viral vectors and their properties will prove important for improving the effectiveness and safety of clinical gene therapy, but there are particular risks in which reliable and generalizable methods of immune evasion could increase viral fitness, potentially causing a new pandemic. They write, “High potential for misuse is associated with (1) the development of universal genetic elements for immune modulation, (2) specific insights on capsid engineering for antibody evasion applicable to viruses with pandemic potential, and (3) the development of computational methods to inform capsid engineering.” They explain a number of ways this could be mitigated, including prioritizing non-viral delivery systems, before concluding with recommendations about how this data should be published until a technical solution for preventing malicious access to these viral engineering tools is established.  

Commemoration of the 34th Anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Attack on Halabja

March 16th, 2022 marks the 34th anniversary of the chemical attack on Halabjah. On this occasion, this event aims at commemorating all victims of chemical weapons and raising awareness about chemical weapons and chemical weapons disarmament. It is organized by Rotary Peace Fellows Alumni Association and World Beyond War. It is open to all interested individuals. Speakers are prominent activists, including Dr. Paul Walker (Coordinator of the CWC), who have worked in CW-related fields for years. Their presentations will be followed by Q&A and one minute of silence. This virtual event is on March 12 at 4:00 pm BMT. Register here.

Building Public Trust in Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (PHEPR) Science: A Workshop

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is hosting a two-day public workshop on March 29th and 30th to examine issues of building public knowledge of and trust in the public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) science enterprise. Workshop discussants and participants will specifically:

  • Examine why the topic of public trust (and trustworthiness, credibility, confidence in, among others) is important in PHEPR science and develop a shared understanding of its importance and its relationship to other factors that contribute to social cohesion in public health emergencies.
  • Explore key elements of PHEPR science communication and generate actionable communications strategies based on recent experiences.
  • Generate actionable strategies and approaches for building/maintaining trust, communicating PHEPR science and the scientific process in the face of uncertainty and in response to the recent decline in perceived credibility of federal, state, and local agencies.
  • Examine the ways in which diverse demographic groups experience PHEPR science differently and generate strategies and approaches for building trust in PHEPR science and the scientific process that is tailored to these varied experiences.

Find more information and register here.

Open Source Technology Tools For United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 Implementation

The Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) is hosting the webinar “Open Source Technology Tools for United Nations Security Council 1540 Implementation,” sponsored by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) through voluntary contributions received from the Government of the Republic of Korea. The event will feature an expert panel discussion and demonstration of open source tools and resources available to all UN Member States that can help strategic trade stakeholders gather information, assess risks, make policy and authorization decisions, and take effective enforcement measures. Before the event, registered participants will receive links to the resources and publications that will be discussed by the event panelists. The event’s focus is on tools that are publicly accessible. The objective of the webinar is to compile use cases for these tools as well as demonstrate to Member States and their stakeholders the availability, accessibility, and value of open source instruments for strengthening UNSCR 1540. This event will be useful for both public and private sector decision-makers who play a role in  UNSCR 1540 implementation measures.

Panelists include Jason Arterburn (Program Director for State-Sponsored Threats at C4ADS), Dr. Richard T. Cupitt (Senior Fellow and Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program at the Henry L. Stimson Center), and Peter Heine (Senior Advisor in Global Security Technology and Policy at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory). This event will occur March 23 at 10:00 AM EST. RSVP here.

From ASPR: Comments Requested on 2023-2026 National Health Security Strategy

Through a Federal Register Notice (FRN) published by ASPR on February 14, 2022, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is soliciting public comments to provide information regarding threats and challenges to national health security, and promising practices to address the same. The information provided will be used to inform the development of the 2023-2026 National Health Security Strategy (NHSS). The NHSS is a four-year strategy that establishes a strategic approach to strengthening the country’s ability to prevent, detect, assess, prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from disasters and emergencies. The upcoming iteration of the NHSS (2023-2026) presents a unique opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and focus the nation’s priorities to address evolving public health challenges and be better prepared for future health security threats. For more information, please view the full FRN posted to the Federal Register. Comments will be accepted March 25, 2022, electronically to nhss@hhs.gov with “2023-2026 NHSS Comments” in the subject line. Comments may be placed in the body of the email or in an attachment to the email using a standard document format.

Pandora Report: 3.4.2022

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, Russian claims that the United States is supporting biological weapons labs in Ukraine and Georgia have begun to circle online once more, including among QAnon supporters. The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Working Group II findings were released, warning of a bleak future if the world fails to rapidly take action to combat climate change. Finally, we cover the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s new charge to review policies pertaining to research with enhanced potential pandemic pathogens and Dual Use Research of Concern, the CRISPR patent patent battle, and more.

Russian Disinformation Campaign Targeting CTR Labs Continues Amid Ukraine Invasion

As we have discussed multiple times in the last few weeks, Russia is waging an ongoing disinformation campaign targeting the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program (CTR). To recap briefly, this program was established to help handle the legacy of the former USSR’s WMD programs, which were vast in nature and geography, spanning 12 time zones and 15, at the time, newly sovereign states. It also aimed to help find employment for former Soviet scientists in the hopes that they would not find employment in countries like Iran or North Korea. This program eventually expanded and its goals changed as it drew closer to accomplishing one of its core goals of dismantling nuclear stockpiles and infrastructure in the former Soviet republics. As its attention shifted more towards chemical and biological threats, labs in the program continued to be modernized or built in order to be able to handle dangerous pathogens, support public health efforts in the region, and build networks of competent professionals in partner countries. These labs are strictly peaceful and, though they do receive help and funding from DTRA, are still under the control of their host countries’ governments.

Within the last couple of weeks, these lies have begun to circulate again across social media, including re-posts of a post from the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo claiming the CTR labs are researching “methods of destroying the Russian people at the genetic level,” and maps claiming to depict locations of US BW facilities across Ukraine. As the claims have continued to be circled by Russian, Serbian, and Chinese outlets, accounts linked to QAnon conspiracy theorists have also adopted them, claiming the Russians are launching airstrikes on Ukraine to target the supposed BW facilities so that Dr. Anthony Fauci cannot create a “sequel to COVID-19”. These rely on the debunked idea that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered as a bioweapon, though they continue to spread on platforms like Telegram and 8chan. Chinese state outlets, notably Xinhua, have made similar claims as well, including that COVID-19 was created by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft Detrick, MD, the US Army introduced COVID-19 in China with its delegation at the 2019 World Military Games in Wuhan, and, most recently, that the Omicron variant entered the country on a piece of mail from Canada. The Russian claims about the CTR labs have been debunked by PolitiFact, Snopes, and AFP Fact Check as well. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently highlighted, Russia’s invasion puts the labs and the pathogens they store, in addition to the good they provide to the country and region, at risk.

These claims also picked up pace again in recent years as these labs often times played central roles in the response to COVID-19 in these countries. The Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health, part of Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC), a CTR-sponsored facility in Tbilisi was instrumental in the country’s response to COVID-19. NCDC activated its emergency response unit in January of 2020, well before there were cases in Georgia, and, by February, had its own testing capability with results delivered in 24 hours or less, making it one of the major success stories in pandemic response regionally. Despite being invited to visit the lab numerous times, the Russians refused and seemed largely unphased by the results of an international inspection in 2018 that found the lab was both completely peaceful and transparent. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, made another baseless claim about the Lugar Center- blaming the “Pentagon-controlled” laboratories for outbreaks of COVID-19 in Russia, while stating the lab was also developing BW agents for use against Russia. This is absolutely nothing new, but the risks continue to grow the more this continues on. Read this piece from David Lasseter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, providing his perspective on Putin’s WMD disinformation.

@PandoraReport Twitter thread providing context for CTR’s founding and recent history of Russian disinformation targeting these facilities

What the War in Ukraine Might Mean for Health Security

It’s a story nearly as old as human history itself- war and disease go hand in hand. As images of newborns and their mothers sheltering in makeshift maternity wards in the basements of Ukrainian hospitals spread around the world, reports that Ukraine is running dangerously low on critical medical supplies surfaced. The situation is so bad, apparently, that efforts to help stop a polio outbreak had to be paused, Kyiv’s Okhmadyt children’s hospital paused cancer treatments, and the WHO is warning the country is almost out of oxygen supplies. This is all as the Russian military is accused of firing directly on hospitals and ambulances. As of 3/3/2022, UNHCR estimated that Poland had taken over 505,000 refugees, Hungary 139,000, Moldova nearly 98,000, Slovakia 72,000, Romania over 50,000, and Russia close to 49,000. USAID Administrator Samantha Power estimated that as many as 5 million refugees could flee the country in the coming weeks. While many fleeing Ukrainians have been welcomed by open arms and doors in Europe that were notably not open during other recent refugee crises, concerns about surges in COVID-19, polio (which the country had vaccine-derived cases of before the invasion), and more are growing as such a large number of people suddenly exit the country, oftentimes staying in closely-confined quarters with less than ideal sanitation and clean water access in the process.

Russian Military Shells Europe’s Largest Nuclear Power Plant…and the Whole Thing Was on Live Stream

Concerns have also risen with the Russian’s capture of Chernobyl and their overnight (livestreamed) shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which started a fire that has since been extinguished. While the fire is out and the IAEA says Zaporizhzhia has returned to normal operations, the safety systems were not impacted by the attack, and there was no release of radioactive material, some remained concerned about how the facility staff will function under Russian control in such hostile conditions. Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, stated only one reactor is working right now at 60% in Zaporizhzhia and that he was trying to contact Russian and Ukrainian officials to sort out political responsibility. Zaporizhzhia houses six of the 15 reactors in Ukraine, producing half the country’s electricity as the continent’s largest nuclear facility. An official at Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear plant operator, said that radiation was normal, but his organization could no longer contact the plant’s management and had no control over potentially dangerous nuclear material. Earlier in the invasion, the Russians took Chernobyl, famous for its 1986 explosion and subsequent disaster, which the Ukrainian government did say led to a spike in radiation levels. However, it is unclear if that was due to malfunctioning sensors or even possibly the Russian military stirring up dust in the largely abandoned area. It remains unclear why they took either site, and the US and other countries have reminded Russia it is in fact a war crime to target nuclear power plants. Shortly after the Russians captured Chernobyl, Dr. James Acton wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Chernobyl is inside a large exclusion zone, and the uninhabited space would mitigate the consequences of a second nuclear accident there. Ukraine’s other reactors are not similarly isolated. Moreover, much of the fuel in these other reactors is substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl. To put it simply, nuclear power plants are not designed for war zones. It seems exceedingly unlikely that Moscow would authorize deliberate attacks on these facilities, but they could nonetheless become targets in a war that will, in any case, disrupt their operations.” This again highlights how strange and potentially dangerous this situation is, despite the current relative safety in this rapidly evolving conflict. Read more about concerns about how nuclear power facilities would fare in conflicts in the Middle East and East Asia.

NIH Orders National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to Review Research Safety Policies

The NIH Director has directed the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to conduct a review of existing policies pertaining to research using enhanced potential pandemic pathogens and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). This will include review of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Recommended Policy Guidance, the HHS Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions, the USG Policy for Oversight of Life Sciences DURC, and the USG Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences DURC, according to an NIH statement. NSABB was charged in January 2020 to “1) provide recommendations on balancing security and public transparency when sharing information about research with enhanced potential pandemic pathogens and 2) evaluate and analyze the U.S. Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) policies.” However, this was put on hold as the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Dr. Lawrence Tabak, Acting NIH Director. While these concerns are not new, for example- concerns about publishing research on gain-of-function (GoF) testing on influenza viruses have stirred controversy for some years now, this comes amid concerns about lab leaks that are in large part driven by speculative claims about the origin of the pandemic. Proponents of doing such research argue that pathogens like influenza viruses and coronaviruses mutate all the time in nature, so it is critical to do this work in a lab to be better prepared in understanding how a new variant might spread or present clinically. The Washington Post quoted Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, expressing support for the review, stating, ““I think it’s really important to review this stuff and to regulate it, and make sure that it’s regulated in the right way.” She continued by explaining how she thinks this will be useful amid all sorts of conspiracy theories and conjectures about where SARS-CoV-2 came from (which, by the way, Nature announced this week it has three studies in pre-print indicating the pandemic can be traced back to a market in Wuhan and that SARS-CoV-2 did spill over from animals).

Harvard and MIT Broad Institute Wins CRISPR Patent Case Against UC Berkeley

The US Patent and Trademark Office ruled this week that UC Berkeley, Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, and the University of Vienna (where Charpentier was a PI in the Max Perutz Labs where she did work foundational to developing CRISPR/Cas9 technology; the group are referred to as CVC in documents) do not hold several contested patents for some CRISPR technologies. The Patent and Trial Appeal Board of the Patent and Trademark Office instead determined that the Broad Institute at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology actually used CRISPR technologies on eukaryotic cells before CVC and filed successfully, meaning they actually hold these patents. CRISPR/Cas9 was developed by Dr. Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkley and Charpentier in 2012, for which they shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, the Patent Office granted the Broad Institute a patent for work using CRISPR based on some earlier work (from ca. 2011-2012) in 2014, which Broad successfully argued was correctly issued, recognizing Dr. Feng Zhang’s work as the first engineering of CRISPR-Cas9 to be used for mammalian genome editing. The Broad Institute stated in a press release, “Broad believes that all institutions should work together to ensure wide, open access to this transformative technology and will continue to explore how best to make this happen.” This has potential to harm UC Berkley’s revenue and, CVC argues, will likely complicate the work of biotech companies using CRISPR for their gene-editing therapies.

Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

The Working Group II has released its contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. The report assesses the impacts of climate change, focusing on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels. It also reviews vulnerabilities and the capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change. According to the press release: “The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F). Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible. Risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.” Furthermore, “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.” A Summary for Policymakers, Technical Summary, and the Full Report are available for download. TRACIE recently discussed climate change and its impact on healthcare systems, writing, “Climate change negatively affects national security, environmental stability, and human health. In 2020 alone, over 20 climate-related disasters occurred in the U.S., resulting in losses of over $1 billion (Smith, 2021). Climate model projections predict an increase in these adverse effects over the next century, with certain existing health threats intensifying and new health threats emerging (Crimmins, Balbus, Gamble, et al., 2016).” Read TRACIE’s 2022 “Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare Considerations” report here.

Qualitative Risk Assessment for African Swine Fever Virus Introduction

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently released its new paper, “Qualitative Risk Assessment for African Swine Fever Virus Introduction: Caribbean, South, Central and North Americas”. The report rates countries on the likelihood of SFV entering through informal importation of pork products and by-products, entry through food waste, fomites, live pig trade, and likelihood of exposure once the virus has entered the country through one of these channels. The report also noted, “The lack of data resulted in high levels of uncertainty for most of the risk pathways, except for those involving formal trade of commodities framed by national and international regulations, under higher biosecurity and strict inspections and controls.” It makes a number of recommendations for strengthening prevention measures targeting major risk pathways for ASFV exposure, including improvements to diagnostics and disease control.

Draft, Call for Consultation- WHO Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences

The draft Global guidance framework for the responsible use of life sciences. Mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research (the Framework) has just been released for comments. The aim is to gather comments and feedback from all those interested in the responsible use of the life sciences. The deadline to provide comments in March 18 using this site. According to WHO:

Research and applications in the life sciences and converging technologies contribute to a better understanding of diseases, and to the development of new drugs, vaccines, innovative treatment and medical devices. However, rapid scientific and technical changes in the life sciences raise a number of risks, including the safety and security risks of health-related research.

In the beginning of 2021, WHO Research for Health Department (RFH) initiated the development of the Global guidance framework for the responsible use of life sciences. Mitigating biorisks and governing dualuse research (the Framework) to address the risks caused by accidents, inadvertent applications and deliberate misapplications with the intention to cause harm to humans, nonhuman animals and the environment. Building on pre-existing work and initiatives, the Framework aims to provide Member States and other key stakeholders guidance on values, principles, tools and mechanisms to prevent and mitigate biorisks while harnessing the power of life sciences for global health and society. In this respect, the draft Framework targets a wide range of multidisciplinary audiences at individual, institutional, national, regional and international levels.

The draft Framework was informed by three dialogues on dual-use research organized in 2020 and two consultative meetings held in 2021, which were attended by a broad range of stakeholders and experts from all six WHO regions. The draft Framework draws directly on the findings and considerations of five working groups established to provide inputs on specific themes. The draft Framework is based on the reports developed by these five working groups and build upon this work to further develop key considerations for the governance of biorisks.

Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz participated in several of the dialogues, consultative meetings, and working groups that contributed to the Framework.

Former World Bank Health Director Publishes New Book

Dr. Soji Adeyi, former Director of World Bank Health, published his new book, Global Health in Practice: Investing Amidst Pandemics, Denial of Evidence, and Neo-dependency, recently with World Scientific. Adeyi seeks to better understand fundamental weaknesses in global health, asking “What are the roots of discontents in global health? How do geo-politics, power dynamics, knowledge gaps, racism, and corruption affect global health? Is foreign aid for health due for a radical overhaul?” His book explores barriers to accomplishing lofty goals like universal health coverage, including science denialism and the challenges of uneven progress, and how policy makers and practitioners can better handle these.

The Battle for Influence in the Information Domain

The National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction will host this webinar on March 17 at 1:00 pm EST. The United States faces adversaries competing on multiple planes, including the information domain. In many ways the United States is being out-maneuvered and out-competed both in cyberspace and strategic communication. While some aspects of this struggle over influence occur in the physical and military worlds, the vast preponderance of it happens in the Information Domain where the US Government has been slow to adapt sufficiently to this new strategic contest. As a result, we are inviting strategic disappointment and defeat in places globally where we once held almost unchallenged supremacy. Register for this event here.

Texas Global Health Security Innovation Consortium Global Health Security Innovation Week

This unprecedented conference, part of SXSW, brings together the global health security and innovation communities to define, communicate, and solve our most critical challenges in preventing, predicting, detecting, and responding to global health security threats. The virtual event will emphasize the importance of locally driven innovation in emerging ecosystems (LMICs) and will promote equitable access to technologies and resources for ensuring health security in all communities. Together participants will create a road map and a call to action for creating and scaling innovative solutions to global health security challenges. This conference will feature a panel, “Advances in Science and Technology in the Life Sciences,” featuring Dr. Gregory Koblentz (Director of the George Mason Biodefense Graduate Program), Dr. Filippa Lentzos (Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London), Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security), and Dr. Jamie Metzl (Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council).

The Texas Global Health Security Innovation Consortium (TEXGHS) is the host of GHS Innovation Week 2022, hosted March 12-15. Organizing partners who have all helped to make this conference possible are Austin Technology Incubator (ATI)Global Health Security NetworkIDEO, and UNAIDS Health Innovation Exchange. Infections and disease can spread rapidly and seemingly without warning in our globally connected world, putting people anywhere and everywhere at risk with little warning. TEXGHS was founded in 2020 and has since grown to a global network of innovators and partners worldwide who help local health solutions make a global impact. TEXGHS is dedicated to thwarting current and future global health threats by fueling invention, innovation and best practices and processes in disease control and prevention. Register for the free virtual event here.

How Do We Respond to Growing Threats to Health Security?- King’s College London

Two years on from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scale and diversity of health security threats continues to challenge governments and practitioners worldwide. Various crises such as the US Anthrax Attacks, SARS, Ebola and COVID-19 have repeatedly shown the difficulty anticipating and responding to rapidly changing threat landscapes.

Now, as climate change drives the emergence of novel pathogens, hostile actors wage information bio-warfare, and drug resistance threatens our existing medical countermeasures, the importance of strengthening health security approaches has never been greater.

How should we address increasingly diverse future threats to health security whilst responding to the current pandemic crisis? How can we support health systems across high and low income settings to prepare for health emergencies? How should health, government and security actors engage with one another to anticipate health security threats? And importantly following COVID-19, how can we prevent the next pandemic from occurring in the first place?

The panel of international experts will discuss these important issues at the fifth panel in the War Studies at 60 Seminar Series, led by the Conflict and Health Research Group in the Department of War Studies. The event will be held on March 9 at 6:30 pm GMT. Register on Eventbrite.

About the speakers

Professor Máire Connolly is currently PI of the Horizon 2020 PANDEM project at the School of Medicine at NUIG. Prior to joining NUIG, she worked at WHO Headquarters in Geneva for 15 years as Coordinator for Disease Control in Emergencies and subsequently Advisor to WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security up to 2012. Her role included setting the global research agenda for emergencies. She was a member of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team and has worked on UN missions in 15 emergency affected countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Dame Jenny Harries DBE is a public health physician who has been the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and head of NHS Test and Trace since April 2021. She was previously a regional director at Public Health England, and then Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England from June 2019 to April 2021.

Professor Richard Sullivan is Professor of Cancer and Global Health at King’s College London, and Director of the Institute of Cancer Policy (ICP) and co-Director of the Conflict and Health Research Group. As well as holding a number of Visiting Chairs, Richard is an NCD advisor to the WHO, civil-military advisor to Save the Children, and a member of the National Cancer Grid of India. In conflict systems, his research teams work on capacity building in conflict medicine across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as studies of the basic package of health services in Afghanistan, civil-military co-operation in health security, polio eradication and insecurity in Pakistan, and use of intelligence in high security disease outbreaks.

Dr Gemma Bowsher is co-lead investigator for the biosecurity and health intelligence research theme at the Conflict and Health Research Group, and an affiliate member of the Centre for Science and Security Studies, Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research programmes focus on health security intelligence, linking clinical domains with intelligence processes within national and international governance systems. She is also a practising doctor in the National Health Service.

Westminster Health Forum: Priorities for the UK Health Security Agency and Preparedness for Future Health Threats

This conference will discuss priorities for the new UK Health Security Agency. It will be an opportunity to discuss priorities and future outlook for the new agency – and key issues for the development and implementation of its role in improving national public health and responding to future health threats. Sessions in the agenda look at the UKHSA’s role – scope, priorities and opportunities for collaboration, prevention and mitigation – key issues for resources, use of data, and health surveillance capabilities, public health research – priorities for investment and funding, innovation, and collaboration, community health and local healthcare – collaboration and local responses, reducing inequalities, and the role of the UKHSA, international collaboration – priorities for development and opportunities for UK leadership, and lessons from COVID 19 – the UK’s response, the role of genomics, and preparing for future health threats.

The program includes a keynote session with Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive, UKHSA. There will be further keynote contributions from Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, Saïd Professorship of Vaccinology, Jenner Institute & Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Oxford; Professor Kate Ardern, Director of Public Health, Wigan Council and Lead Director of Public Health for Health Protection and Emergency Planning, Greater Manchester Combined Authority; Dr Laura Blackburn, Head of Science, PHG Foundation; and Richard Sloggett, Founder and Programme Director, Future Health; and former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. This event will occur on April 7 at 8:30 am GMT. Register here.

NBSB Public Meeting

The next public meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) will be held on Monday, March 7 from 1:30pm – 3:00pm ET. Join the NBSB members and distinguished guests and experts as they discuss topics to issues related to the public health supply chain and climate change.  We will hear from the HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, and the US Department of Defense (DoD) Support for Supply Chain and Industrial Expansion through the Joint Program Executive Office (JPEO) for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (CBRND). Preregistration is required here.

Council on Strategic Risks’ Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons

CSR has released the Call for Applications for their Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons program.

The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is continuing to develop and cultivate creative solutions that could help address biological threats, with a particular focus on the deliberate weaponization of infectious diseases. As part of this work, CSR is announcing a call for applications for the 2022 – 2023 class of our Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons. Applications are due by 5pm Eastern Standard Time on April 1, 2022. Four to six Fellows will be selected. In this one-year Fellowship, successful applicants will work with leading experts committed to biological threat reduction and biosecurity, including former government officials who helped dismantle Cold War-era biological weapons capabilities and advance international biological cooperation and policy progress. They will interact with current and former government leaders as well as private and public sector innovators. 

UNIDR Global Disarmament Essay Competition

From the UN Institute for Disarmament Research:

The UN Secretary-General’s “Securing our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament”, highlighted that while the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development took an important step towards articulating how arms control, peace and security contribute to development”, there is a lot that remains to be done “in order to bring the historical relationship between disarmament and development back to the forefront of international consciousness”.

In order to contribute to this effort, the first annual UNIDIR Youth Global Disarmament Essay competition will be held in 2022. The initiative will invite students and young professionals aged between 18 and 29 years to prepare and submit an original essay of no more than 2,000 words on the theme of “the disarmament, security, and development nexus, including with reference to the Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda entitled ‘Securing Our Common Future’ and the United Nations General Assembly resolution on Youth, Disarmament and Non-proliferation (A/RES/76/45). Your entry might consider, but is not limited to, exploring the following areas:

  • Disarmament, economic growth and inequalities.
  • Disarmament for sustainable cities.
  • Innovative disarmament efforts in the light of 21st century’s environmental challenges.
  • Gender mainstreaming for sustainable disarmament and development.

Applicants are invited to draw on their personal experience, whether at the local, national, regional, or international level. All papers will be reviewed anonymously on the basis of their originality, intellectual rigor, relevance to the theme of the competition, and clarity of expression. Deadline for submission: 23.00 CET on 15 April 2022. Winners will be announced on 15 July 2022.

Pandora Report: 2.25.2022

As the world focuses its attention on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we begin this week by trying to understand what this evolving event means for global health security. This comes as much of the US and world continue to try to find ways to “get back to normal”, turning away from masking in hopes of treating COVID-19 like an endemic threat, which has not gone without criticism. Finally, in addition to our varied coverage this week, we are sad to also cover the death of Dr. Paul Farmer, a legendary figure in global health and pioneer of social medicine.

What Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Means for Global Health Security

In his new piece in Think Global Health, David Fidler, Senior Fellow for Global Health and Cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it does have implications for global health. He states, “The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought all kinds of havoc, but it has played no role in producing the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine that would reset the balance of power in Europe,” before continuing on to argue that Russia’s troop build up does not seem to have been timed to exploit any challenges brought by the pandemic to the US and her NATO allies. He also asserts that, “Arguments that stronger pandemic preparedness and response (PPR) capabilities produce meaningful strategic advantages in a world subject to balance-of-power politics do not hold up.” In support of this, he offers the example of US and Taiwanese officials becoming worried earlier in the pandemic that the Chinese would invade Taiwan, something that he notes could only be prevented if the US defended the island. As Taiwan has done fairly well throughout the pandemic, he concludes this means, “…international cooperation on PPR produces outcomes that are not responsive to the strategic threats that balance-of-power politics create.” He builds on this by discussing the Russian calculation to invade Ukraine, which he notes is based on the belief the US and her NATO allies will not send their forces into Ukraine, not on how it perceives the US military has managed the pandemic.

The Motherland Monument in Kyiv. Photo by Petkevich Evgeniy on Pexels.com

He discusses too the impact this conflict is likely to have on Ukrainians’ health outcomes, particularly as the conflict interrupts ongoing medical care and the damaged system becomes burdened by military and civilian casualties. Though he notes war historically helps facilitate the spread of disease, he writes ” A Russian invasion would disrupt Ukraine’s efforts against COVID-19, but in a delta- and omicron-saturated world, such a disruption is unlikely to change the course of the pandemic.” Importantly, he explains how this conflict will not just have acute ramifications for Ukraine’s healthcare system, but the vulnerability of displaced Ukrainians and the impact on their economic status and other social determinants of health will be of consequence in the long term.

The WMD angle to this is also incredibly important. Dr. Hanna Notte and Sarah Bidgood recently discussed the nuclear concern in War on the Rocks, writing, “The consequences of a Russian military escalation against Ukraine could well be catastrophic from an arms-control perspective. While Washington would probably find it extremely difficult to continue its Strategic Stability Dialogue with Moscow — commenced last summer in the wake of the U.S.-Russian presidential summit — the deleterious impact on global nonproliferation efforts would not likely be confined to the two countries’ bilateral agenda, should there be a war. And even if military escalation can be avoided, protracted tensions between Russia and the West are set to further frustrate efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons across the board.”

Online rumors have also again circulated false information asserting Russia is targeting US BW labs near its borders, a notion the US has dispelled time and time again. It is important now to recall Russia’s attempts to sow disinformation regarding DTRA’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, including false claims the US is supporting biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine and Georgia. The United States’ Biological Threat Reduction Program‘s work in Ukraine, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists highlighted recently, involves “consolidat[ing] and secur[ing] pathogens of concern” and helping the country “detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats.” This program has helped Ukrainian government agencies manage everything from the country’s COVID-19 response to helping them conduct work on agricultural pathogens and mentor scientists pursuing One Health- related research. To be clear, these facilities are run by the Ukrainian government, not the United States.

California Releases New Pandemic Plan

Late last week, California released its new SMARTER Plan: The Next Phase of California’s COVID-19 Response, which the Newsom administration bills as being designed to take the state from “pandemic to endemic”. SMARTER stands for Shots, Masks, Readiness, Testing, Education, and Rx, highlighting the core features of the state plan. Key points include maintaining a state capacity to provide at least 200,000 vaccines per day, maintaining a stockpile of at least 75 million high quality masks, increasing community engagement with over 150 relevant community-based organizations, continuing to sequence at least 10% of all positive COVID-19 test specimens, maintaining the capacity to administer 500,000 of COVID-19 tests per day, and using federal partnerships to ensure Californians can access necessary therapeutics in under 48 hours. This plan marks the first release of what some are calling “state endemic virus plans”. This comes amid waves of US state and foreign governments, including those of blue states, changing course on mask mandates in favor of a “return to normal”. Despite changes like these, as GMU Biodefense Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu recently explained to The Washington Post, travel remains a murky area, a negative test is required to return to the United States, and it is important for travelers to still be cautious and aware of the risk they are taking and creating. It is important to consider too that the Omicron variant surge in the US has driven up the rate of COVID-19 patients who acquired their infection in the hospital while seeking treatment for other conditions. This peaked at a record 4,700 hospital acquired infections per day in January, compared to the peak of 1,100/ day during the Delta wave and 2,050 during the first winter surge. While policies are changing, the threat is still present and it is important to take these very real risks into consideration when making these personal choices now.

Global Health and the National Security Council at a Critical Juncture

Dr. Beth Cameron is transitioning from her post as the National Security Council’s (NSC) Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense, with Dr. Raj Panjabi, a PCP, former CEO of Last Mile Health, and President Biden’s current US Global Malaria Coordinator, taking her place. As Stat recently highlighted, this is a critical point for Panjabi as the moment is very uncertain. The pandemic has absolutely unearthed serious deficiencies in US public health preparedness, compounded by factors like climate change and widening socioeconomic inequities, but the world is fatigued from this pandemic and “International negotiations to bolster pandemic preparedness have been delayed by contested normative and pragmatic approaches to health security.” Arush Lal of London School of Economics highlighted recently three potential priorities for Panjabi as he joins the NSC, including shifting focus from one-off disease events to building functioning health systems, focusing on building up equity globally to help prepare for future emergencies, and focusing on addressing fragmentation in critical public health emergency leadership. He concludes by arguing that Panjabi should tie COVID-19 investments to local health systems specifically, helping address some of the challenges of patch-work public health funding in the US. This holistic approach, Lal argues, will help the US better deal with complex, ever-changing public health threats, including COVID-19 as the situation continues to evolve.

Republic of Korea Named WHO Global Biomanufacturing Training Hub

Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the WHO Academy announced this week that the country was selected to be the WHO’s global biomanufacturing training hub. This will serve low- and middle- income countries interested in producing biologicals, like vaccines, insulin, monoclonal antibodies, and various cancer treatments. Echoing the successful establishment of a global mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa, this program will see the WHO and ROK coordinate to create a comprehensive general biomanufacturing curriculum for attendees to help build stronger workforces and regulatory systems in targeted countries. The South Korean Minister of Health and Welfare, Kwon Deok-cheol, stated, “Just 60 years ago, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world…With the help and support of WHO and the international community, we have transitioned into a country with a strong public health system and bio-industry. Korea deeply cherishes the solidarity that the international community has shown us during our transition. By sharing these lessons we’ve learnt from our own experience in the past, we will strive to support the low- and middle-income countries in strengthening their biomanufacturing capabilities so that we could pave the way together towards a safer world during the next pandemic.”

US Fast Tracks Proposals to Alter WHO International Health Emergency Response Rules

Amid calls that the WHO was underpowered when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the US has issued a proposal for major changes to the rules of the International Health Regulations. According to Health Policy, these have been discussed in a number of closed-door meetings of WHO member states who are considering ways to reform the existing IHRs and possibly advance an entirely new WHO convention or other international framework for pandemic prevention and response. The US proposal includes changes to the WHO’s early warning reporting criteria, updates to the time allotted to report outbreaks of international concern and acceptable methods of communication, and the time in which the WHO must seek verification and begin coordinating next steps of action. Other potential changes to the IHRs include improved sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging pathogens, rules on equitable vaccine distribution, and incentives for reporting new pathogens and variants. The EU is also pushing for a ban on wildlife markets. The US opposed creation of a new binding treaty overall, though it is still taking part in the talks, particularly concerning IHR amendments.

WHO Says BA.2 is Not More Virulent

The BA.2 subvariant now accounts for more than one third of global COVID-19 cases, based on recently submitted samples to GISAID. While it does seem to be up to 30% more infectious than the original Omicron, BA.1, the WHO says it is not actually more virulent than the original subvariant and it does not merit a separate designation with its own Greek letter. Importantly, the WHO also stressed that Omicron is not “mild”. Rather, it is less severe than Delta generally. There are about 40 mutations between BA.1 and BA.2 relative to the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, which some scientists argue is enough to label BA.2 as its own independent variant of concern. This all comes amid numerous studies and reports that Omicron does not increase the risk of hospitalization, despite a pre-print Japanese study showing the opposite in hamsters bringing concern in some circles.

Finafloxacin Shows Promise in Treating Both Plague and UTIs

Finafloxacin, a novel 5th generation fluoroquinolone, has shown success against plague and melioidosis in studies coordinated by academia, industry, and DTRA. Finafloxacin currently is already approved for its systemic and topical formulations to treat conditions caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Though research is ongoing, if successful, this will offer an alternative medical countermeasure to help combat diseases globally, which is incredibly important as antimicrobial resistance continues to rise globally. It is also rare to find an antibiotic that works against multiple pathogens, as Dr. Sarah Harding explained to Global Biodefense, so finafloxacin demonstrating potential as prophylaxis and treatment against both F. tularensis and Y. pestis. has some folks very excited.

Biotechnology Innovation Organization- The State of Innovation in Antibacterial Therapeutics

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO, recently released its new report, “The State of Innovation in Antibacterial Therapeutics”, assessing the insufficiencies of the clinical antibacterial pipeline in meeting the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. BIO has previously published research indicating that, “…drug development investment for many common chronic diseases was found to be declining and low relative to total healthcare burden on society,” according to the new report, further adding to these concerns. Highlights of this report include the facts that only one new molecular target NCE (new chemical entity) has been approved by the FDA in the last 35 years even though 164 direct-acting antibacterial NCEs have been approved since the early 1990s, clinical trial success rates are more than double the overall industry success rate (7.8% vs. 16.3%) for antibacterial NCEs from 2011-2020, and clinical trial initiations for these NCEs declined 33% in recent years. There are only 64 NCEs in clinical trials right now, 20 of which are candidates for tuberculosis and Clostridioides difficile, compared to the 260 COVID-19 antivirals and 158 breast cancer oncology drugs in clinical development in 2020-2021. The Pioneering Antimicrobial Subscriptions to End Upsurging Resistance (PASTEUR) Act, introduced in the House and Senate in 2021, is designed to combat this by aiming “…to incentivize antibiotic development by creating a subscription-style model for new antibiotics, under which companies that develop critically needed antibiotics for resistant infections would receive a contract from the federal government ranging from $750 million to $3 billion.” This would decouple the ROI for new antibiotics from the volume actually sold, helping incentivize companies to pursue such research. Solutions such as this are discussed at length in the report, including a number of government and non-profit funding solutions, regulatory incentives, and market-based solutions to this critical challenge.

The President’s Malaria Initiative Operations Plans, Fiscal Year 2022

The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) has released its FY 2022 Malaria Operational Plans (MOPs), which are detailed one-year implementation plans for each PMI country program. These outline USAID’s support to national malaria strategic priorities and try to complement investments made by other partners by expanding malaria-related services. PMI operates in 24 focus countries in Africa and also supports three programs in the Greater Mekong Subregion of Southeast Asia, which combined represent about 90% of the world’s malaria burden. This year’s MOPs are available here on the PMI website.

Photo by Pragyan Bezbaruah on Pexels.com

Lentzos and Koblentz on Hybrid Coronaviruses

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, and Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Co-Director of the Centre for Science & Security Studies at King’s College London, recently published their article, “Have hybrid coronaviruses already been made? We simply don’t know for sure, and that’s a problem“, in The Conversation. In it they discuss the possibility that chimeric coronaviruses have already been made, stating that it unclear as US labs do not have to publicly report such experiments, drawing attention to what they believe is a large problem- lack of opportunity for public discourse on high-risk life science research. They begin by discussing the CDC’s 2021 addition of chimeric viruses, “viruses that contain genetic material derived from two or more distinct viruses”, to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) List of Select Agents and Toxins. The CDC then designated research pertaining to such viruses as restricted experiments which require approval from the secretary of HHS under the belief that such regulatory oversight is critical to prevent the release of such viruses, according to the authors. They discuss one US lab’s interest in conducting such research before getting into why this reporting structure prevents broader public discourse on the merits and risks of such research. They conclude that, “Knee-jerk regulatory responses to individual experiments, and treating safety, security and dual-use risks in isolation, must stop. It is high time for a new global architecture for life science governance that takes a comprehensive and coherent approach to biorisk management and that revisits how high-risk life sciences research, funding and publication processes are conducted.”

Book Launch Event: New War Technologies and International Law: The Legal Limits to Weaponizing Nanomaterials

King’s College London’s Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) is offering an event introducing Dr. Kobi Leins’ new book, New War Technologies and International Law: The legal limits to weaponizing nanomaterials. This event will include Dr. Leins in conversation with Dr. Helen Durham, Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Co-Director of CSSS. The event will occur on March 10, 3- 4 pm BST online and in-person. Register here.

Schar School- The Risk of Climate Change to International Security

The Schar School recently hosted a policy exchange on the intersection of climate change and international security issues, featuring a wide variety of faculty members covering unique facets of this nexus. The video of the event is available here. Featured faculty included:

Professor Ken Reinert serves as director of the Master’s in International Commerce and Policy program. He has consulted for the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the OECD Development Center, and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Associate Professor Greg Koblentz serves as director of the Biodefense Graduate program.  He is an associate faculty member at the Center for Security Policy Studies at Mason and a member of the Scientist Working Group on Biological and Chemical Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Associate Professor Bonnie Stabile serves as associate dean of student and academic affairs and director of the Master’s in Public Administration program. She is the founder and director of the Schar School’s Gender and Policy (GAP) Center. 

Adjunct Professor Erin Sikorsky is the director of the Center for Climate and Security and the International Military Council on Climate and Security, as well as an adjunct professor at the Schar School.

Dr. Paul Farmer is Dead at the Age of 62

Dr. Farmer, a world-renowned medical anthropologist and physician known for his work in social medicine and global health, passed away on February 21 at the age of 62 due to an “acute cardiac event,” according to The New York Times. Dr. Farmer was the co-founder of Partners in Health, an international non-profit that works to provide direct health services while also working to alleviate poverty conditions of the sick under the idea that such conditions only further exacerbate illness and must be addressed structurally. His work influenced greatly public health strategies to respond to everything from TB, to HIV/AIDS and Ebola. He was also critical of international aid, despite his focus, often preferring to work directly with local providers and populations to achieve the best outcomes, moving his family to Rwanda and Haiti to do so. Many across the world are grieving the loss of Dr. Farmer, including Drs. Anthony Fauci and Peter Hotez, who both fondly recalled Farmer and his impact on so many lives.

Biodefense MS Program Alumna Elected Coordinator of Next Generation Global Health Security Network

Kate Kerr, Biodefense MS Class of 2019, was recently elected as Next Generation Global Health Security Network, an affiliate of the Global Health Security Agenda which is a collaboration founded in 2014 by representatives from 44 countries (now 69) and organizations, including the World Health Organization. NextGen is an international organization of nearly 1,000 early- to mid-stage professionals and students who work on the full spectrum of issues related to global health, ranging from combating antibiotic resistance to preventing the next pandemic. Kate previously served as the organization’s Deputy Coordinator and will now head the entirety of the global organization. The Biodefense Program has a history of producing leaders in this organization, including several country-level coordinators and global leaders. A big congratulations to Kate and all of the other newly elected leadership! We are so proud of you all and cannot wait to see where you take this organization next.

Pandora Report: 2.18.2022

This week offers a mixed bag, covering everything from the possibility that the infamous Russian flu was in fact caused by a coronavirus to Robert Califf’s return to the FDA. We also cover updates to Switzerland and the UK’s approaches to CBW concerns, Scientific American’s great new special edition on what COVID has taught us, a whole slew of events, and a number of exciting updates from the Biodefense Program!

Was the “Russian Flu” of the Late 19th Century Actually a Coronavirus?

Gina Kolata recently wrote in the New York Times about how scientists are increasingly speculating the famous Russia flu that emerged in 1889 may have actually been driven by a coronavirus. As she explains, it emerged in Bukhara, then part of the Russian Empire, before spreading globally, overwhelming hospitals and killing the elderly in droves. She explains that much of what happened sounds eerily familiar in 2022 writing, “Schools and factories were forced to close because so many students and workers were sick. Some of the infected described an odd symptom: a loss of smell and taste. And some of those who recovered reported a lingering exhaustion.” After a few years and at least three waves, the Russian flu drew to a close. This pattern and noted symptoms have sparked interest from virologists and historians of medicine who are curious if this pandemic was caused by a coronavirus and, if so, what that might tell us about the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it is extremely challenging to make a definitive ruling on this, she explains that molecular biologists are now able to find old virus in preserved lung tissues from Russian flu patients, prompting some researchers to go on the hunt for jars that might contain these lungs. Harald and Lutz Brüssow published in Microbial Biotechnology last year their work examining clinical evidence that the Russian flu pandemic may in fact have been caused by a coronavirus- “Clinical Evidence That the Pandemic from 1889 to 1891 Commonly Called the Russian Flu Might Have Been an Earlier Coronavirus Pandemic.” In it they note the similarities of characteristics writing, “Most notable are aspects of multisystem affections comprising respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms including loss of taste and smell perception; a protracted recovery resembling long covid and pathology observations of thrombosis in multiple organs, inflammation and rheumatic affections. ” They also note that, as with COVID-19 but unlike with influenza, the elderly were severely impacted while children fared much better during the Russian flu.

Dr. Robert Califf to Head the FDA

Dr. Robert Califf is again the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, a position he previously held under President Obama from 2016 to 2017. He was very narrowly confirmed by the Senate as concerns about his close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, as well as GOP opposition to his stance on birth control, nearly prevented him from securing the 50-46 vote. The Duke University cardiologist faces serious challenges at FDA, which has lacked a political leader for 13 months now, though he should be more able to guide policies and the administration’s regulatory agenda than he was during Obama’s lame duck period. Nicholas Florko at Stat News recently highlighted six key decisions likely to either make or break his first year back at FDA, including controversy surrounding pediatric COVID-19 vaccinations.

One Health Commission Launches New Websites Tracking Strategic Action Plans

The One Health Commission recently launched two new websites, one compiling national One Health strategic action plans and another compiling One Health antimicrobial resistance strategic plans. These efforts have been ongoing since 2019, demonstrating the Commission’s efforts and dedication to making this information more readily available and easy to access. Both pages are organized into national strategies, with the AMR one including sections for IGO and regional union strategic plans in addition to country-specific ones. The Commission states the creation of these websites was a global One Health community effort, further demonstrating the growing momentum of this movement and the importance of its goal of addressing human, animal, and environmental health as closely connected and necessary to view together to get the best outcomes.

Swiss Federal Council Adopts Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy 2022-2025

At its February 2022 meeting, the Federal Council of Switzerland adopted its first ever arms control and disarmament strategy. The strategy sets out goals and measures in five areas of action, including nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, conventional weapons, autonomous weapons, and cyberspace and outer space. The Council states, “Current developments in Eastern Europe and Asia demonstrate how high security-related tensions currently are. This makes Switzerland’s commitment to peace and security even more important. Disarmament and arms control is an important instrument in this context. The opportunities and risks entailed by new technological developments are becoming more significant. The strategy places a particular emphasis on the development of norms concerning autonomous weapons, cyberspace and outer space.” The impetus behind this, according to the Council, was increasing great power competition necessitating better ensuring international arms control and disarmament architectures are maintained and further developed.

COVID-19 Remains a Threat to the Military, According to Biodefense Program Alumnus

Biodefense program alumnus Dr. Yong-bee Lim recently published an article with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explaining how COVID-19 was and still is a threat to the US military. In his piece, “Even as Omicron Infections Trend Down, Long COVID Remains a Threat to the Military,” he highlights how two particular examples, the early 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 on the USS Roosevelt and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testing positive for the virus, demonstrate the multitude of ways this can hurt military readiness. He explains that disease threats can harm operational capacity, as was the case with the Roosevelt when she was forced to make an emergency port call in Guam for months as she was de-contaminated and her sailors quarantined, as well as to critical leadership in the Pentagon.

He also goes into great depth regarding the long-term impacts long COVID could have on readiness and retention for the services. Dr. Lim writes, “In the military, leaders will have to grapple with how to maintain the size of the armed forces and how to respond should long COVID affect key people in the chain of command. Already, Austin is having the Department of Defense undertake a Biodefense Posture Review. The first review of its kind in Defense Department history, it is meant to “assess the biological threat landscape and establish the Department’s approach to biodefense, to include clarifying biodefense priorities, roles, responsibilities, authorities, capabilities, and posture.” The Pentagon should finish review in mid-2022. It is an opportunity to consider a variety of issues, including how long COVID could impact service members and key individuals in both the military and civilian chain of command.” Similar issues were highlighted by Biodefense PhD student Danyale C. Kellogg in her article in National Defense.

PACIFIC OCEAN (April 30, 2021) – U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Lane, from San Diego, draws the COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) April 30, 2021. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment conducting routine operations in U.S. 3rd Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas V. Huynh)

French President Refuses COVID-19 Test in Russia

French President Emmanuel Macron refused to take a COVID-19 test when he arrived in Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, citing concerns about giving the Russians access to his DNA and resulting in the pair keeping an almost comical distance from one another as they discussed the Ukraine crisis. This prompted some outlets to question why the French president would be so concerned about the Kremlin getting a hold of his DNA and speculate that he is just being paranoid. However, this is hardly anything new. During the Obama administration, this concern stemmed from the idea that an adversary’s access to the president’s DNA could lead to the creation of a customized bioweapon for an assassination attempt, an idea similar to the concept of an ethnic bioweapon. This threat extends beyond world leaders too. Just a couple of weeks ago, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued a bulletin warning US companies and persons to be aware of this threat when picking testing contractors and companies. In recent years, too, the Department of Defense has warned servicemembers not to use at home DNA testing kits, such as 23 and Me, for fear that they are helping adversaries amass data on US military members for nefarious use later. Amid the massive increase in this type of testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, fears about foreign powers amassing data on US citizens have grown. Early in the pandemic, as the US struggled to build testing capacity and states could not run their own tests in their state labs, BGI Group (formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute) targeted US state governments with cheap tests that promised to rapidly increase their capacity. The problem, however, was that BGI is known to have used its NIFTY test, a prenatal test used by pregnant people globally, to collect data in collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the PRC and CCP. Similar concerns surround the rise of personalized medicine too, further demonstrating Macron is not just being unnecessarily paranoid.

Biodefense PhD Program Alumni, LCDR Jennifer Osetek (USCGR) and Dr. Keith Ludwick, Publish New Chapter in Handbook of Security Science

Drs. Jennifer Osetek and Keith Ludwick recently published their chapter in Springer’s new volume, Handbook of Security Science, entitled “Societal Security and COVID-19”. In it they explore non-medical obstacles that pose threats to healthcare delivery, spanning security, logistics, communications, and cultural challenges within this category. They discuss issues such as attacks on healthcare workers and cybersecurity vulnerabilities, offering insights into how experiences of these during COVID-19 should inform future pandemic planning. Dr. Osetek defended her dissertation, “The Last Mile: Removing Non-medical Obstacles in the Pursuit of Global Health Security,” in 2018 and is now an Assistant Professor of Public Health Sciences at Pennsylvania State’s College of Medicine, a faculty member in the Public Health Preparedness option of the Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security, and a Senior Consultant at Dynamo Technologies supporting the US Coast Guard’s Office of Specialized Capabilities. Dr. Ludwick defended his dissertation, “The Legend of the Lone Wolf: Categorizing Singular and Small Group Terrorism” in 2016 and is now an Associate Professor in the American Public University System, having retired from the FBI.

Strengthening Controls on Novichoks

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Program Director, recently published with Dr. Stefano Costanzi in The Nonproliferation Review. Their article, “Strengthening controls on Novichoks: a family-based approach to covering A-series agents and precursors under the chemical-weapons nonproliferation regime,” discusses how the CWC can be strengthened to better handle Novichoks by adding families of Novichok agents with guanidine branches. They also offer an approach for the CWC and Australia Group to base their control of Novichok precursors on families of chemicals instead of individually enumerated chemicals. Free e-prints of the article are available using this link.

How COVID Changed the World

Scientific American has released this special edition which discusses lessons from the last two years dealing with the pandemic. Articles in the collection discuss emergency science, sociological analysis of the pandemic and attitudes about rugged individualism, and how the pandemic showed how fragile our health institutions really are. They also include a piece on how long COVID is drawing more attention to chronic illnesses, which are commonly misunderstood and mischaracterized as well as discussion on the future of in-office work, nasal spray vaccines, and the pandemic’s widening of societal divisions.

Judicial Enforcement of BWC and CWC Implementing Legislation

VERTIC, the Verification Research, Training, and Information Centre, has just released a brief authored by Thomas Brown discussing ongoing challenges in effectively enforcing the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions. He determines through analysis of two case studies that national stakeholders struggle with creating legislation to implement these treaties due to struggles with incorporating expert technical knowledge into the drafting of legislation, challenges in international cooperation, and creating legislation that is understandable despite the often highly technical nature of it all. The report concludes with a number of recommendations for national stakeholders in the process of creating relevant legislation, highlighting assistance programs available to help in this process if needed. Access the brief here.

Ten Years of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria: A Look Back and a Look Ahead

The Chemical Weapons Coalition and Arms Control Association are hosting a webinar on CW use in Syria February 22 and 10 am ET. The expert panel will assess the progress that has been achieved to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal, what is left to be done, and how to ensure chemical weapons are never used again. 

Opening Remarks: 

  • H.E. Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW

Speakers:

  • Joby Warrick, author and journalist at The Washington Post, and author of the book, Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World. He will discuss the events surrounding the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile;
  • Amb. Ahmet Uzümcü, former Director-General of the OPCW will describe the lessons that can be learned from this period, including from the experience of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, and the Declaration Assessment Team;
  • Izumi Nakamitzu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, will review ongoing efforts to address questions and concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons program, and international efforts to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use.

The panel discussion will be followed by a Q&A session. This discussion will be on the record, and a recording of the event will be posted on the CWC Coalition website shortly after the event. Please click here to download a PDF of speaker bios. Register here.

Next Generation Masks and Respirators: How the Strategic National Stockpile Can Better Protect Essential Workers and the Public During Pandemics

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is hosting the Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Security webinar, Next Generation Masks and Respirators: How the Strategic National Stockpile Can Better Protect Essential Workers and the Public During Pandemics. Masks and respirators have played an important role in keeping people safe in both community and healthcare settings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In a future large-scale outbreak or pandemic, it is possible to increase the protection of healthcare workers and the public from infection through more efficient, certified, well-fitting, and comfortable masks. This session will focus on the current status of mask and respirator stockpiling, the scientific advances that could lead to more effective and accessible masks, and policies that the U.S. government could support to build this capacity in anticipation of future public health threats.

Moderator:

  • Anita Cicero, JD, Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Opening Remarks:

  • Representative Lori Trahan (D-MA) (Invited)

Speakers:

  • Mr. Steven Adams, Director of the Strategic National Stockpile, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Dr. Eric Toner, Senior Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

A Q&A session will follow the moderated panel.

The webinar will be hosted Thursday, February 24, 2022 at 11 am ET. Register here.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to Host Its First Meeting in Two Years

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is a federal advisory committee that addresses issues related to biosecurity and dual use research at the request of the United States Government, hosted by NIH’s Office of Science Policy. It has up to 25 voting members at a time who span a broad range of expertise, including molecular biology, microbiology, infectious diseases, biosafety, public health, veterinary medicine, plant health, national security, biodefense, law enforcement, scientific publishing, and other related fields. On the meeting’s draft agenda there is a discussion of where NSABB will go next and what its charge is, offering what is sure to be an interesting discussion given what has transpired since its last meeting two years ago. The meeting will occur virtually on February 28 at 12 pm ET and is available to the public (information on attendance is available here).

Council on Strategic Risks- COVID-19 Response Technologies & Their Future Role in Pathogen Early Warning

Join the Council on Strategic Risks for COVID-19 Response Technologies & Their Future Role in Pathogen Early Warning on Wednesday, February 23 from 12:00–12:45 EST. RSVP here. This discussion will be hosted by Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks. Panelists hosted are from two companies that have led the way in developing innovative COVID-19 response technologies:

Dr. Mariana Matus, CEO and Cofounder of Biobot Analytics, will share how Biobot has pioneered wastewater testing to detect COVID-19 outbreaks and variant trends — and how this technology will be critical in early warning for future biological threats.  

Matthew McKnight, Chief Commercial Officer at Ginkgo Bioworks, and leader of Concentric by Ginkgo, will discuss Concentric’s K-12 COVID-19 testing program and the future of this effort.

The panel discussion will be followed by an audience Q&A. This event will be recorded and open to the public, including members of the press. 

Teaching Climate Change as a National Security Threat

The Schar School recently released this story, adapted from the Fall/Winter Schar School Pulse Magazine, discussing the various intersections of climate change and national security. It discusses some of the ways the impacts of climate change threaten military readiness, its relationship with transnational crime, how the administration is working to integrate it into national security planning, and how the Schar School has long since recognized this threat and integrated it into our programs. This comes in advance of the Schar School’s Risk of Climate Change to International Security talk this Wednesday, February 23 at 5:30 pm ET, which can be attended by registering here.

US Senate- Addressing the Gaps in America’s Biosecurity Preparedness

The Senate held this hearing yesterday, February 17, featuring Christopher Currie of GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice section, Dr. Asha George of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, and Dr. Gerald Parker of Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Bush School of Government and Public Service as witnesses. The hearing, held by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, discussed key challenges and next steps for improving American biosecurity. The recording and testimonies are available here.

Biodefense Graduate Program Added to the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs List of Specialized Courses and Degrees

The Schar School’s Biodefense Program has been added to UNODA’s list of specialized courses and degrees in the field of disarmament. The list highlights courses around the world noted for their strong offerings in this area. The Biodefense Programs offers graduate degrees, an MS (both in-person and online), and a PhD. Find more information on our programs here.

Biodefense PhD Alumnus Named Deputy Directory of the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons, Council on Strategic Risks

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim recently was promoted to Deputy Director of CSR’s Nolan Center! He is also currently a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Bulletin Editorial Fellows Program. While in the Biodefense Program, he was selected for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security and was also a Presidential Scholar in the Schar School. His prior work includes research with the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Health and Human Services. Congrats to Dr. Lim!

UK Biological Security Strategy Refresh: Call for Evidence

The United Kingdom has opened a call for evidence to help revamp its Biological Security Strategy. The country seeks to revamp its approach to these issues as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed critical shortcomings in its ability to respond to biological threats. The Financial Times reported recently that this was, in part, also triggered by a critical assessment from parliament that outlined several of these shortcomings. The UK’s Biological Security Strategy, published in July 2018, brought together for the first time the work that takes place across government to protect the UK from significant biological risks. The 2018 strategy identifies several significant biological security risks relating to human health, animal and plant health, the environment, accidental release, and deliberate attack, including:

  • a major health crisis (such as pandemic influenza or new infectious disease)
  • antimicrobial resistance
  • a deliberate biological attack by state or non-state actors (including terrorists)
  • animal and plant diseases, which themselves can pose risks to human health
  • accidental release and dual-use research of concern