Pandora Report: 6.24.2022

Happy Friday! This week we cover new reporting on Russian disinformation campaigns, including those it backs in Syria and a new Microsoft report discussing Russia’s cyber strategy. We also discuss the WHO’s emergency meeting to discuss declaring monkepox a public health emergency of international concern, the winners of NTI’s next gen biosecurity competition, and a new resource from the One Health Commission.

WHO Considering Declaring Monkeypox a PHEIC, Vaccination and Testing Expands

WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus convened an Emergency Committee under Article 48 of the International Health Regulations in relation to the current outbreak of monkeypox virus yesterday (June 23). The goals of this meeting were to provide opinions to the Director General on whether the event constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) and also on proposed potential Temporary Recommendations. While we have not heard their findings and decision yet, some critics argue that the WHO’s choice to wait and act only after the disease spread in the West “could entrench the grotesque inequities that arose between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.” Furthermore, some have cast doubt that a PHEIC declaration would matter much since developed countries seeing outbreaks are moving quickly to contain them.

This comes as the US CDC is reporting they have evidence of local transmission of monkeypox, including through family members sharing things like bedding and towels. The Biden administration announced this week that it is authorizing commercial laboratories to conduct monkeypox tests in an effort to quickly grow testing capacity. The US is currently reporting 172 cases, with 48 of those in California, while the UK’s count continues to climb, currently sitting at 793. Globally as of Wednesday, 42 countries reported cases totaling 3,308, with the UK, Germany, and Spain having the most confirmed cases currently.

Orders for smallpox vaccines have skyrocketed as a result, with the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority having purchased 110,000 doses for 27 EU countries and the US ordering half a million doses just this month. Bavarian Nordic’s Vice President Rolf Sass Sorensen has said he is confident his company can keep up with global command even though they were caught by surprise with the sudden outbreak. The US stockpile has 36,000 doses of the Jynneos vaccine, more than 100 million of ACAM2000, and Bavarian Nordic holds 1 million US-owned doses. New York City became the first major US city to begin offering smallpox vaccines to people at-risk of contracting monkeypox this week with the city representing about 14% of the national case count.

However, not all are confident in the United States’ ability to handle this or other future health crises. This week, the Commonwealth Fund Commission on a National Public Health System released a report in which experts described the various inadequacies and inequities of the United States’ response to COVID-19. Among other things, the panel recommends the “creation of a new national public health system” to better help address crises. The New York Times explains that “While other countries have centralized public health authorities, public health in the United States is largely managed at the state and local level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal public health agency, does not have the authority to compel states to act — it cannot, for example, investigate outbreaks of infectious disease in a particular state unless it has an invitation from state officials to do so.” Their proposed system would be overseen by an Undersecretary for Public Health in the US Department of Health and Human Services, who would be responsible for coordinating the work of over a dozen federal agencies who have some role in public health.

In related news, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions passed the bipartisan Murray-Burr PREVENT Pandemics Act with a 20-2 vote. The Murray-Burr bill combines numerous prior efforts to, among several other things, “Ensure the CDC’s Accountability and Leadership by Requiring a Senate-confirmed CDC Director and an Agency-wide Strategic Plan.” This is a move some caution will only further harm the CDC, with GOP-backed efforts to make the CDC Director position a senate-confirmed one late last year sparking controversy. The CDC and its current director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, have caught much flack in recent years, with a recent internal probe at the agency finding serious deficiencies in the organization’s culture and responsiveness to public health threats.

Winners of 2022 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Announced

In better news, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and its partners recently announced the winners of their annual biosecurity competition – Nicholas Cropper, Shrestha Rath, and Ryan Teo – and their paper, “Creating a Verification Protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention: A Modular-Incremental Approach.” The second place team’s paper, “Leveraging Advances in Biotechnology to Strengthen Biological Weapons Convention Verification Protocols,” was also announced. Biodefense program alumnus Dr. Yong-Bee Lim and program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz were on the international panel of judges as well.

“Defending Ukraine: Early Lessons from the Cyber War”

Microsoft’s new report discussing Russia’s cyber strategy and how it has played out during the invasion of Ukraine was released this week. It devotes much attention to how effective Russia’s disinformation campaign has been, including the spread of disinformation regarding US-supported biological research facilities in Ukraine. It reads in part, “The Russian invasion relies in part on a cyber strategy that includes at least three distinct and sometimes coordinated efforts—destructive cyberattacks within Ukraine, network penetration and espionage outside Ukraine, and cyber influence operations targeting people around the world. This report provides an update and analysis on each of these areas and the coordination among them. It also offers ideas about how to better counter these threats in this war and beyond, with new opportunities for governments and the private sector to work better together.” It offers five conclusions, including that “…defense against a military invasion now requires for most countries the ability to disburse and distribute digital operations and data assets across borders and into other countries,” and “…the lessons from Ukraine call for a coordinated and comprehensive strategy to strengthen defenses against the full range of cyber destructive, espionage, and influence operations.”

“Deadly Disinformation: How Online Conspiracies About Syria Cause Real-World Harm”

The Syria Campaign, supported by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and using ISD research, recently released this report on a disinformation network coordinated by a Russian campaign targeting the White Helmets and spreading disinformation about the Syrian conflict – including “the denial or distortion of facts about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and on attacking the findings of the world’s foremost chemical weapons watchdog.” The Guardian explains that “The White Helmets became a target of Russian ire after documenting incidents such as the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, which killed 92 people, a third of them children. A UN unit later concluded there were “reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces dropped a bomb dispersing sarin” on the town in Idlib province.” The report also finds that Russian official government accounts, including those of the Russian embassies to the UK and Syria, played a central role in creating and spreading false content. The report finds that “Of the 47,000 disinformation tweets sent by the core of 28 conspiracy theorists over seven years from 2015 to 2021, 19,000 were original posts, which were retweeted more than 671,000 times.”

What We’re Listening To- Poisons and Pestilence Podcast

The University of Bath’s Dr. Brett Edwards’ podcast, Poisons and Pestilence, recently released a bonus episode episode focused on the Polish resistance movement’s use of CBW during World War II. After a great first season that included “Episode 2: Hittite me Plaguey one more time”, Dr. Edwards announced a second season “looking at poison arrows, toxic smoke, water poisoning and the laws of war from the 13th to the 18th century.” Be sure to give this podcast a listen and follow!

Virtual Stakeholder Engagement Meeting on USG Policies for the Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern

The purpose of this meeting is to gather feedback from stakeholders about their experiences implementing these policies, the effect of these policies in terms of achieving their stated goals, the overarching definition of DURC, and possible alternative approaches for the oversight and responsible conduct of DURC. This feedback will also be used to inform the discussions of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in fulfillment their current charge to evaluate and analyze the DURC policies. It will be held on June 29, 2022 at 12 pm ET. Registration is not required to attend. Find the webcast link and more information here.

Recording- The History and Future of Planetary Threats | Biological Risks and Hazards in the World Today- with Special Focus on Russia and Ukraine

A panel of experts, including our own Dr. Gregory Koblentz, discussed evolving biological risks, the health security environment in post-Soviet states, and the biological risks posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine- including those associated with Russia’s disinformation campaign at this event in May! Access the event recording here.

One Health Commission Launches One Health Tools and Toolkits Compilation Page

“Many governmental agencies, NGOs, academic institutions, and other organizations have created a diverse array of One Health (OH) tools and toolkits to help OH practitioners and lifelong learners integrate health operations & monitoring across societal sectors and geographic boundaries. They aid in health systems management, disease surveillance, research, learning, and much more.

Since 2019, the One Health Commission has been compiling these toolkits to characterize the increasing operationalization of OH worldwide. The webpage listing of these resources is now available to the world: https://tinyurl.com/OHC-OH-Toolkits

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

We are currently working on creating a searchable collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation on the Pandora Report site. The page is a work in progress, and currently just lists resources we have highlighted in the past. In the meantime, here are some recent updates and works on the topic:

“A Perspective on Russian Cyberattacks and Disinformation”

Glenn Gerstell, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former general counsel of the National Security Agency, was interviewed at a Wall Street Journal event in San Francisco in front of a live audience. The discussion focused on Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine and Russia’s use of disinformation. Highlights of the discussion are available here.

“Fact Sheet on WMD Threat Reduction Efforts with Ukraine, Russia and Other Former Soviet Union Countries”

The Department of Defense recently released this fact sheet covering the history and accomplishments of US collaboration with the international community to reduce WMD threats in Ukraine, Russia, and other countries who were formerly part of the USSR. It provides a comprehensive yet concise timeline of efforts, including the Nunn-Lugar CTR program, and discusses efforts by Russia and China to undermine these immense accomplishments today to further their agendas.

Schar School Applications Open- Deadline July 15

The Biodefense program is accepting Fall 2022 applications for our MS and graduate certificate program through July 15. Learn more about our admissions process and apply here.

Pandora Report: 6.17.2022

Monkeypox, plague, and COVID-19-Oh my! We have another mixed bag this week, covering the WHO’s formation of an external committee to help determine if monkeypox is a PHEIC, new research that helps determine the Black Death’s origin, INTERPOL’s collaboration with the WOAH, and the US Government’s new MOU on public health emergency testing capacity. As always, we round out the week with new publications, upcoming events, and announcements. Finally, we wish everyone a meaningful Juneteenth holiday weekend, as the US observes its newest federal holiday this Sunday.

No More Monkeying Around- WHO to Convene Emergency Committee on Monkeypox Spread

This Tuesday, the WHO announced it will convene a meeting next week of external experts to help the organization determine if the current spread of monkeypox is a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). As of June 16, 37 countries where the disease is not endemic are reporting outbreaks, with confirmed cases breaking 2,100 globally. These are mostly in Europe, with the UK reporting 524 confirmed cases, followed by Spain at 313, Germany at 305, Portugal at 241, and France at 183. Canada is reporting 159 cases and the US currently sits at 99.

This casts a dark shade over ongoing Pride celebrations for some, as many caution that the virus’s spread primarily in men who have sex with men echoes the spread of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Montreal announced this week that the city would expand its monkeypox vaccination campaign to all men who have sex with men, calling the city the “epicentre of the North American monkeypox outbreak.” As the diseases spreads in New York City, officials are cautioning the public to “Be aware, but don’t panic.” Sharon Otterman wrote in The New York Times that, “Grindr, the social networking app, sent a pop-up message about the risk of monkeypox to millions of European and American users. A sex party organizer in New York asked invitees to check themselves for lesions before showing up. And the organizers of the city’s main Pride celebrations posted a monkeypox notice Sunday on their Instagram account.”

The WHO’s monkeypox page is available here and is routinely updated with new guidance, press releases, and fact sheets. The US CDC’s global case tracker is available here and the US map and case count is available here.

The Black Death’s Origin Solved?

New research published in Nature this week identifies the origin of the infamous Black Death that killed an estimated 30-60% of all Europeans in the mid-14th century. Spyrou et al.’s article, “The Source of the Black Death in Fourteenth-Century Central Eurasia,” uses DNA data from seven people exhumed at two cemeteries located near Lake Issyk-Kul in modern Kyrgyzstan to shine light on this enduring debate. Ian Sample explains how the team came to focus on this location in The Guardian, writing “The international team came together to work on the puzzle when Dr Philip Slavin, a historian at the University of Stirling, discovered evidence for a sudden surge in deaths in the late 1330s at two cemeteries near Lake Issyk-Kul in the north of modern-day Kyrgyzstan. Among 467 tombstones dated between 1248 and 1345, Slavin traced a huge increase in deaths, with 118 stones dated 1338 or 1339. Inscriptions on some of the tombstones mentioned the cause of death as “mawtānā”, the Syriac language term for “pestilence”.”

Researchers at Germany’s University of Tübingen extracted DNA from these individuals’ teeth, finding that three of them contained Y. pestis. The bacteria’s genome was determined to be a “…direct ancestor of the strain that caused the Black Death in Europe eight years later and, as a result, was probably the cause of death for more than half the population on the continent in the next decade or so.” This determination also helps settle historians’ debate over whether the Black Death spread into Europe via Eurasian trade routes or Mongol military actions in the early 13th century, as Gina Kolata explains in The New York Times.

“Under a magnification of 500X, this photomicrograph of a Giemsa-stained lung tissue sample, harvested from a Pecos, New Mexico patient with secondary plague pneumonia, revealed the histopathologic findings that resulted from this illness. Note the presence of numerous, Yersinia pestis bacteria, which exhibited characteristic pleomorphism. In this view, the exudate was scant, though it did harbor the most abundant quantity of plague organisms.” Source: CDC Public Health Image Library, Dr. H.E. Stark

World Organisation for Animal Health Partnering with INTERPOL to Prevent Biocrimes

The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) and INTERPOL (the International Criminal Police Organization) are partnering together to collaborate on building global preparedness and countering biocrimes and bioterrorism. This approach will see improved understanding between veterinary services and law enforcement, which is critical given the world’s current challenges. For example, INTERPOL’s website identifies several crimes as being linked to animal disease and able to harm human populations, including sales of falsified products, animal cruelty and abuse, agroterrorism, food fraud, non compliance, illicit wildlife use, smuggling, and poaching. To learn more about this collaboration, check out this interview with Fanny Ewann, Specialized Officer in INTERPOL’s Bioterrorism Prevention Unit, discussing what constitutes and biothreat, the agroterrorism risk today, and how INTERPOL, WOAH, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are working together to help improve collaboration between veterinary and law enforcement organizations. If you would like a re-fresher and brief history of the differences between biocrime, bioterrorism, and biowarfare, check out Oliverira et al.’s work discussing it here.

New MOU for Diagnostic Surge Testing Capacity for Public Health Emergencies Released

The US FDA, CDC, and several other stakeholders signed and released a memorandum of understanding earlier this month on enhancing lab testing capacity outside of CDC and public health laboratories before and during public health emergencies. After the US failed to build-up testing capacity rapidly in the early days of the pandemic, it became clear that many changes in regulatory policies are needed in order for this to not happen next time. The MOU reads in part:

The capability and capacity of PHLs was utilized during several outbreaks, including Anthrax 2001, the response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and Ebola outbreaks. However, public health laboratory systems are not currently designed to handle and execute diagnostic testing at a large scale and scope beyond the initial critical phases of public health emergencies. Furthermore, in the early phase of an emergency response, FDA-authorized tests and testing platforms may be inherently limited and may not be optimized for high throughput. The need to supplement public health laboratory diagnostic testing capacity has been demonstrated in previous virus outbreaks. At the advent of the H1N1 influenza virus outbreak, hospital- based clinical laboratories responded rapidly and effectively and the need for a coordinated and streamlined response from both public health and clinical diagnostic laboratories became apparent. The Zika virus outbreak resulted in the engagement of large independent laboratories with nationwide facilities. At the same time, hospital-based laboratories served the diagnostic needs of their patient populations. Most recently, the extensive demands for diagnostic testing during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic quickly extended beyond public health laboratories and independent laboratories to other Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certified testing facility types.

The Biden administration is also expected to release a revised National Biodefense Strategy as early as this month, signaling that some major pitfalls may start to be addressed in the United States’ biodefense game plan.

Summary of Expert Insights for the US Department of Defense Biodefense Posture Review Meeting

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently released this report discussing expert input on the Department of Defense’s first Biodefense Posture Review, including that of our own Dr. Gregory Koblentz. The Center writes that, “During the meeting, a variety of participants discussed two recurring recommendations:

  1. The DoD, and the nation, would benefit from organizational realignment so that one person or office is responsible for biodefense policy across the DoD. This would help the Department to plan, build resources, and engage experts. Current efforts that shift responsibilities depending upon the nature of the health security crisis—for example if it is deliberate or natural, outside the contiguous US (OCONUS) or domestic—inhibit coherent planning.
  2. Disinformation is a threat in all aspects of the biodefense posture, ranging from operational restrictions to reputational impacts on the United States. The DoD should routinely consider how its statements and actions can both enable and counter disinformation and take steps to minimize impact. Also, DoD should consider using its communications abilities to dissuade other nations from developing biological weapons.”

“Public Health Preparedness: Medical Countermeasure Development for Certain Serious or Life-Threatening Conditions”

The US Government Accountability Office released this new report this week discussing MCM development and the Food and Drug Administration’s Animal Rule, implemented in 2002 to guide animal efficacy studies when human clinical trials are not ethical or feasible. GAO writes, “We found that FDA has provided guidance to support development of medical countermeasures under the rule, such as by clarifying the types of data needed to demonstrate product efficacy. FDA has approved 16 medical countermeasures under this rule.”

“Back to the Future for Verification in the Biological Disarmament Regime?”

The UN Institute for Disarmament Research recently released this report from Revill, Borrie, and Lennane. They write, “Twenty years after the termination of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) Ad Hoc Group negotiations, the notion of adopting a BWC verification protocol is now almost an article of faith among some States Parties to the Convention. Yet it is clear that in 2001, the work of the Ad Hoc Group was a long way from agreement around a robust regime capable of ensuring confidence in compliance with the BWC’s prohibitions. Moreover, if there are some elements of continuity in the biosecurity sphere since then, much has also changed – geopolitically, technologically and economically. These changes generate challenges as well as opportunities to strengthen the BWC, which remains a central multilaterally-agreed component of a much wider set of measures that have emerged over the last two decades to prevent the hostile use of biology and manage the challenge of dual use biology around the globe. This report looks at these changes and identifies areas to move forward.”

“Lack of Access to Medicine is a Major Driver of Drug Resistance. How Can Pharma Take Action?”

The Antimicrobial Resistance Research Programme recently released this new report on antimicrobial resistance’s global rise. They write, “Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is rising faster than expected. Worldwide, more than one million people die of AMR each year, most of them in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Resistant infections can rapidly spread without appropriate access to essential antibiotics and antifungals. Yet, the issue of responsibly providing access for people living in resource-poor settings has been largely overlooked. Pharmaceutical companies are only using a limited number of the opportunities that exist to expand access in poorer nations, resulting in significant gaps. This study sets out how companies and their partners are using a combination of access strategies to cut through the complexity and address access at a local level.”

“The Pig as an Amplifying Host for New and Emerging Zoonotic Viruses”

McLean and Graham’s new article in One Health discusses how the growth of pig demand and changes in pig husbandry practices have led to an environment that is conducive to increased emergence and spread of infectious diseases from swine populations. They write, “These include a number of zoonotic viruses including influenza, Japanese encephalitis, Nipah and coronaviruses. Pigs are known to independently facilitate the creation of novel reassortant influenza A virus strains, capable of causing pandemics. Moreover, pigs play a role in the amplification of Japanese encephalitis virus, transmitted by mosquito vectors found in areas inhabited by over half the world’s human population. Furthermore, pigs acted as an amplifying host in the first and still most severe outbreak of Nipah virus in Malaysia, that necessitated the culling over 1 million pigs. Finally, novel porcine coronaviruses are being discovered in high pig-density countries which have pandemic potential. In this review, we discuss the role that pigs play as intermediate/amplifying hosts for zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential and consider how multivalent vaccination of pigs could in turn safeguard human health.”

Book Talk- Biocrisis: Defining Biological Threats in US Policy

Al Mauroni, current Director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, will be giving a book talk at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in DC on June 21 at 10 am EST. How should the US government address biological threats today? In Biocrisis: Defining Biological Threats in US Policy, Al Mauroni provides a timely analysis of US policy on the intersection of national security and public health. He explores disease prevention, bioterrorism response, military biodefense, biosurety, and agricultural biosecurity and food safety, and proposes a new approach to countering biological threats. Learn more about the event and register here.

Reframing Vaccine Diplomacy amid Strategic Competition: Lessons from COVID-19

The Wilson Center is offering this panel event on June 23 at 10 am ET via webcast. Learn more and RSVP here. Addressing continuity and change in different actors’ global health policies over time, this panel will try to explore new strategies for vaccine diplomacy while sharing the perspective of less represented voices in health diplomacy. What lessons can be learned from the competitive nature of COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy to better understand the power and struggle of competition in the global health domain? What hidden layers of great power competition, diplomacy, philanthropy, and regional and national dynamics were revealed? How should new multilateral and bilateral phenomena of vaccine cooperation inform the global health policy making and international relations?

Schar School Applications Open- Deadline July 15

The Biodefense program is accepting Fall 2022 applications for our MS and graduate certificate program through July 15. Learn more about our admissions process and apply here.

Disarmament and Non-Proliferation of WMD 2022 Training Programme

The OPCW and Asser Institute are offering this training program September 19-23 in The Hague. The preliminary program is available here and includes information and discussion sessions on core WMD topics and contemporary policy issues offered by world-renowned experts in the field. There will also be networking opportunities. Registration is open and there are scholarships available. Scholarship applications are due by July 4, 2022.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

We are currently working on creating a searchable collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation on the Pandora Report site. The page is a work in progress, and currently just lists resources we have highlighted in the past. In the meantime, here are some recent updates and works on the topic:

“The Pentagon Didn’t ‘Admit’ That There are 46 US-Funded Biolabs in Ukraine”

PolitiFact recently posted this debunking referencing the factsheet we added last week after internet users ran wild (again) with its discussion of CTR-supported facilities.

“Fact Sheet on WMD Threat Reduction Efforts with Ukraine, Russia and Other Former Soviet Union Countries”

The Department of Defense recently released this fact sheet covering the history and accomplishments of US collaboration with the international community to reduce WMD threats in Ukraine, Russia, and other countries who were formerly part of the USSR. It provides a comprehensive yet concise timeline of efforts, including the Nunn-Lugar CTR program, and discusses efforts by Russia and China to undermine these immense accomplishments today to further their agendas.

Pandora Report: 6.10.2022

This week we cover updates on monkeypox, including the CDC’s Level 2 travel alert, and the conviction of Harry Johannes Knoesen, a South African extremist who was interested in using BW to infect and kill Black people to “reclaim South Africa for white people.” A number of new publications are included, including recent work from a Biodefense PhD Program alumnus and FEMA’s updated guidance for nuclear detonation response. Events and announcements are included at the end, including an upcoming book talk from Al Mauroni and a professional development opportunity offered by the OPCW.

Monkeypox Updates

Monkeypox continues to spread in non-endemic countries, with Oahu, HI announcing a third probable case yesterday as the US total sits at 44 cases. As of June 7, 29 countries reported a total of 1,088 cases, with the UK reporting a whopping 321 cases nationwide. The CDC also raised the travel alert to Level 2 for monkeypox, recommending “enhanced precautions” while traveling, but walking back prior advice to begin masking in response to this specific concern. CIDRAP writes, “The enhanced precautions include avoiding contact with sick people, including genital contact, avoiding contact with dead or live animals, and avoiding contact with contaminated materials, such as bedding.” Cases are still mostly in men who have sex with men, prompting many to express concern that the failures and horrors of the mismanagement of the HIV/AIDS crisis will be repeated. There are also concerns that the strategy the US has in place for testing is creating a bottleneck and is wasting precious time in getting the outbreak managed before it becomes more serious. Information on global and country case counts can be found here on the CDC website.

Map depicting locations in the US with confirmed MPX cases. One individual in Florida tested positive while in the UK, which is what the asterisk denotes. Source: CDC

Leader of National Christian Resistance Movement Found Guilty of High Treason, Incitement to Carry Out Violent Attacks, and Recruiting People to Commit Attacks

Harry Johannes Knoesen was convicted by a South African court this week for his plot to overthrow the government and kill thousands of Black people in the country using a biological weapon. Knoesen, a pastor, and his group were interested in using a bioweapon to specifically infect and kill Black people. They entertained the idea of using water reservoirs that supply Black communities to do so, according to the prosecution. ABC News writes, “The plot by the pastor’s group was foiled in 2019 by South Africa’s police and intelligence services, who have since dismantled the organization’s cells across various parts of the country and arrested some of its leaders.” Knoesen was also found guilty of unlawful possession of firearms, and the state highlighted what it described as his religious belief that he was ordained to “reclaim South Africa for white people.” “To further this end, he planned to attack government institutions and more specifically police and military institutions,” Monica Nyuswa, a spokeswoman for the National Prosecuting Authority, told The Associated Press. Knoesen is set to return to court today (June 10) to begin sentencing.

This certainly was not the first plot of this nature in the country. ABC writes, “In 2013, 20 members of the right-wing white supremacy group known as the Boeremag were sentenced to prison for plotting to kill South Africa’s first Black president Nelson Mandela, overthrow the government and kill thousands of Black people.” However, it is noteworthy as an example of a non-state group expressing interest in BW to achieve its objectives.

“The Long, Cloudy History of Moscow’s BW Program”

Biodefense PhD Program alumnus, Dr. Glenn Cross, recently published this review article in The Nonproliferation Review. In it, he covers three of Anthony Rimmington’s books, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: The Origins of Soviet Biological Warfare (2018), The Soviet Union’s Invisible Weapons of Mass Destruction: Biopreparat’s Covert Biological Warfare Programme (2021), and The Soviet Union’s Agricultural Biowarfare Programme: Ploughshares to Swords (2021). Cross notes that the Soviet and, later, Russian BW programs were very much understudied by scholars until the early 1990s when two prominent Biopreparat researchers defected from the USSR. He also notes that, until Rimmington’s recent publications, the most recent scholarly works on this topic were from 2012, 2016, and 2018, highlighting the importance of fresh perspectives on this topic. While Cross notes many of Rimmington’s contributions to this area of study, he also calls attention to a few contradictions across the books and a pervasive challenge of unanswered questions in them. Most importantly, Cross notes that these books do not do much to answer the questions of what the purpose of the Soviet BW program was, which he explains is an increasingly relevant question today. He also points out that Cross relies heavily on secondary sources in Stalin’s Secret Weapon, though he does argue that he makes better use of Fedorov than other scholars have previously. Finally, despite these issues, Cross says Rimmington’s work does offer some value, particularly in their descriptions of Soviet BW facilities and in their identification of Soviet BW program leadership.

“Preliminary Report for the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens”

The WHO released the first preliminary report from the Scientific advisory group for the origins of novel pathogens (SAGO) this week. This report is part of SAGO’s ongoing work and includes background information on the group and its goals, preliminary recommendations for ensuring a global framework to study high-threat zoonotic pathogens and better understand SARS-CoV-2, and discussion of the group’s next steps. Their proposed future meeting topics include everything from “Further analysis of findings from studies pertaining to the Huanan market in Wuhan China and follow up on any identified leads,” to “Discussions about the studies needed to study the re-emergence of other high threat pathogens, e.g., monkeypox virus, MERS-CoV, arboviruses, Ebola virus.”

“Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation”

FEMA’s third edition of this guidance was released last month, having been developed by a federal interagency committee led by the FEMA CBRN Office with representatives from across the Departments of Homeland Security, Energy, Health and Human Service, and Defense plus the Environmental Protection Agency. This edition has been “…updated and expanded to provide guidance for a wider range of nuclear detonations, including larger detonations and air bursts. It also incorporates new research, best practices, and response resources. Additionally, this edition includes a new chapter on the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS), which enables state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) officials to send warnings and key messages during the response.” It includes guidance ranging from providing acute medical care to population monitoring to communications and public preparedness.

“Diagnostic Accuracy of Non-Invasive Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Infection by Canine Olfaction”

Grandjean et al.’s new article in PLOS One discusses use of non-invasive detection of SARS-CoV-2 infection by canine olfaction as a possible alternative to nasopharyngeal RT-PCR. Their study compared detection using canine olfaction with NPS RT-PCR as the reference standard in addition to saliva RT-PCR and nasopharyngeal antigen testing in 335 ambulatory adults. Their findings indicate that overall sensitivity of canine detection was 97% with 91% specificity (94% in asymptomatic individuals) and that canine detection’s sensitivity was higher than that of nasopharyngeal antigen testing.

“The Lanzhou Brucella Leak: the Largest Laboratory Accident in the History of Infectious Diseases?”

Dr. Georgios Pappas’ new article in Clinical Infectious Diseases discusses the aerosolization and spread of Brucella in the summer of 2019 at a biopharmaceutical plant in Lanzhou, China. This accident resulted in more than 10,000 human cases of the disease by November 2020. Pappas writes, “The leak, possibly the largest laboratory accident in the history of infectious diseases, underlines the particular characteristics of Brucella that have made the pathogen a historical entity in biodefense research and a major cause of laboratory-associated infections. It further underlines the need for enhanced vigilance and strict regulatory interventions in similar facilities.”

“Dr. Delirium & the Edgewood Experiments”

Discovery+ released its newest documentary, “Dr. Delirium & the Edgewood Experiments” this week, covering the Army’s experiments during the Cold War to find CW agents that could incapacitate enemy troops without killing them. These experiments, conducted from 1955 to 1975, were done on over 7,000 US soldiers using over 250 agents at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. The documentary relies heavily on interviews with veterans who participated in the experiments, in addition to a long-form interview with Dr. James Ketchum, who ran the psychochemical warfare program at Edgewood. The film does cover theories that Nazi scientists granted asylum through Operation Paperclip were involved with the Edgewood program, though it never actually makes the connection between these two. It also discusses the CIA’s interest in this and other programs. It has received generally positive reviews as well. Read more about the Edgewood Experiments here.

The Impossible State Podcast- COVID-19 in North Korea

In this episode of CSIS Korea Chair’s podcast, The Impossible State, Andrew Schwartz and Dr. Victor Cha are joined by Dr. J. Stephen Morrison to discuss the Covid-19 outbreak in North Korea, the impact of the pandemic on the unvaccinated country, and the road ahead amidst ongoing health and food crises worsened by an extreme lockdown.

Book Talk- Biocrisis: Defining Biological Threats in US Policy

Al Mauroni, current Director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, will be giving a book talk at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in DC on June 21 at 10 am EST. How should the US government address biological threats today? In Biocrisis: Defining Biological Threats in US Policy, Al Mauroni provides a timely analysis of US policy on the intersection of national security and public health. He explores disease prevention, bioterrorism response, military biodefense, biosurety, and agricultural biosecurity and food safety, and proposes a new approach to countering biological threats. Learn more about the event and register here.

Disarmament and Non-Proliferation of WMD 2022 Training Programme

The OPCW and Asser Institute are offering this training program September 19-23 in The Hague. The preliminary program is available here and includes information and discussion sessions on core WMD topics and contemporary policy issues offered by world-renowned experts in the field. There will also be networking opportunities. Registration is open and there are scholarships available. Scholarship applications are due by July 4, 2022.

New Global Health Security Agenda Consortium Website

GHSA’s new website is live at https://ghsacngs.org/. The consortium is “a voluntary and open collective of nongovernmental entities who are dedicated to promote values of collaboration, excellence, innovation, and commitment in implementing the Global Health Security Agenda and promoting the adherence of the International Health Regulations (IHRs) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) Performance of Veterinary Services (PVS) Pathways, the Alliance for Country Assessments for Global Health Security and IHR Implementation, and the Biological Weapons Convention and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540.” The new site features member profiles, plenty of resources, and a dedicated events page!

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

We are currently working on creating a searchable collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation on the Pandora Report site. The page is a work in progress, and currently just lists resources we have highlighted in the past. In the meantime, here are some recent updates and works on the topic:

“Fact Sheet on WMD Threat Reduction Efforts with Ukraine, Russia and Other Former Soviet Union Countries”

The Department of Defense recently released this fact sheet covering the history and accomplishments of US collaboration with the international community to reduce WMD threats in Ukraine, Russia, and other countries who were formerly part of the USSR. It provides a comprehensive yet concise timeline of efforts, including the Nunn-Lugar CTR program, and discusses efforts by Russia and China to undermine these immense accomplishments today to further their agendas.

Koblentz on Nazi Scientists and Malaria bombs

Dr. Gregory Koblentz was interviewed in a National Geographic article discussing recent research potentially indicating an offensive German biological weapons program during WWII.  Read the full article at the link below.

From National Geographic: “Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University’s biodefense graduate program remains unconvinced of the offensive nature of the Dachau work. ‘Research to assess the threat posed by different biological agents and vectors, such as May’s research on mosquitoes and malaria, is especially hard to categorize as offensive or defensive,” Koblentz says. “Even if May’s intent was offensive, it was very preliminary-many steps away from actually producing a viable insect-borne biological weapon.’

(image: CDC)

On Not Falling Prey to Biological Weapons Alarmism in Syria

by Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley

A September 5 Washington Post article raises concern that Syria might resort to biological weapons in retaliation for a Western military strike. The article states that intelligence reports indicate that Syria engaged in bioweapons development in the 1970s and 80s and since then has maintained a “dormant capability,” which some experts interviewed by the Post believe can easily be reactivated to produce biological weapons. it is important to inject a little bit of reality in regard to the question of whether or not  Syria might be able to successfully reactivate a “dormant program” and effectively develop and use biological weapons.

First, we need to define more clearly what capabilities are actually available to Syria. If a “dormant capability” means that Syria has maintained from its 1980s program only a handful of research activities, the country will face tremendous difficulties in launching a crash program capable of producing the quantities of agent required for use as a weapon. If we assume — and this is entirely speculation — that Syria already has stocks of pathogens, its first task will be to produce a sufficient amount of liquid agent for weaponization. Scaling-up, however, has been a stiff challenge for both past terrorist and state bioweapons programs. The passage from a laboratory sample to larger quantities of bioagent is not a straightforward linear process. Because microorganisms are sensitive to their environmental and processing conditions, scaling-up has to be incremental, and each stage requires a revision of the production parameters. For example, when the Soviets launched the large-scale production of their anthrax weapon at the Stepnogorsk production plant in Kazakhstan, their scientists could not maintain the lethal qualities of the agent throughout the production process. They were therefore compelled to review and test each parameter of the production protocol at each stage of the scale-up, a process that lasted about two years. Scale-up also exposes the agent to contamination, which further delays production, as was the case in both the U.S and Soviet programs.  Current biodefense and pharmaceutical companies also routinely face such contamination and scale-up challenges.

Second, it is important to determine what type of expertise is currently available to Syria. If Syria maintained minimal research activities over the past 20 years, it is likely that they will face a shortage of expertise at key points of a weapons development. This includes process development, pilot-scale production, large-scale production, testing, dissemination, and weaponization. For example, the Iraqi program had very few experts with knowledge directly applicable to the agents they selected for use as a weapon. They also had only one fermentation expert, and before his involvement in the program, the fermenters purchased for the program remained in their crates for lack of personnel with knowledge on how to use them. The Iraqis also did not have weaponization experts within the bioweapons program. Weaponization work was conducted by individuals involved in the chemical weapons program, and consisted of adapting existing chemical bombs and warheads for bioweapon use. This resulted in very inefficient weapons, designed to disseminate the agent upon impact, which would have destroyed most of the bioagent. It is worth reiterating also that the Iraqis were only able to produce liquid agents, even though they had access to drying equipment. If active bioweapons programs faced such challenges, one can only imagine what problems a “dormant program” might face.

Were the Syrians able to shepherd enough expertise from the civilian sector, it is not clear whether their skills could be directly relevant to support bioweapons work.  The Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo had among its members individuals with scientific education, but their lack of practical experience in bioweapons development imposed a steep learning curve, which after six years of effort and about $10 million dollars of investment, resulted in failures at every step of a bioweapon’s development.  The Iraqi program faced similar issues: most of its scientists had no prior bioweapons expertise and required several years of learning and exploratory work before they could start making some headway.

Access to expertise is not the only challenge facing Syria. Making sure that the teams of scientists, technicians, and engineers work together, coordinate their efforts, and work towards the same goal is as, if not more, important. The lack of coordination and cooperation was a major source of delay and failure in the Soviet program, which was arguably the most successful of all state programs. Yet, if creating the conditions required for such cooperation is difficult under normal conditions, it is even more complicated under the stress of maintaining covertness in times of war, particularly under an authoritarian regime.

In sum, it is important to avoid falling prey to alarmist claims similar to those that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The threat of Syrian bioweapons use merits a careful and systematic analysis of the capabilities currently available to Syria and a more nuanced and holistic  appreciation of the challenges they might face.

———————————————————————————–
Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University and is primarily affiliated the GMU Biodefense graduate program. Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley has conducted research and written on such topics as biological weapons proliferation, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) trafficking in states of the former Soviet Union, biosecurity and bioterrorism, export controls, transfer mechanisms of WMD expertise, defense industry conversion, and redirection of WMD experts. She has received several grants from the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy, as well as from the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Carnegie Corporation of New York to conduct research on WMD proliferation and contribute to remediation programs such as the DOD-funded Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

(image: CIAT International/Flickr)

The Pandora Report 8.23.13

Highlights this week include MERS in tomb bats, H7N9 and its lurking cousins, Ebola of CCHF?, the history of CW and BW, and nanotech. Happy Friday!

Reservoir of MERS may be Egyptian Tomb Bat. Yes tomb bat, as in, mummies, curses, and tomb bats.

Researchers may have uncovered the reservoir of the recently emerged Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus (MERS). Scientists took DNA samples from 96 bats living at an abandoned site just 12 kilometers from the MERS index case. Once the DNA samples were sequenced, the scientists involved discovered that the fecal pellet of one bat species, the Egyptian tomb bat, shared a 182-nucleotide snippet of DNA with MERS. It’s possible that more of viral genome was present; however, when the frozen bat samples were clearing US customs, the customs officers opened and left the samples out, at room temperature, for two days (don’t even get us started on all the things wrong with that situation). Still, this latest development brings us a step closer to understanding the virus and its mechanism of action.

Science Magazine – “Sequencing the nucleic acids isolated from the samples yielded a clue: The fecal pellet of the insect-eating Egyptian tomb bat (Taphozous perforatus) contained a piece of viral RNA identical to that of the virus isolated from the patient in Bisha, the scientists reported online in Emerging Infectious Diseases yesterday…Still, the finding is another interesting piece in the MERS puzzle, says Marion Koopmans, an infectious diseases researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the work. She points out that the fragment is not only short but also comes from one of the least variable parts of the viral genome, so the full genomes of bat and human virus could still differ significantly. Nonetheless, the finding ‘points at bats as a reservoir for this virus,’ Koopmans writes in an e-mail.”

China bird flu analysis finds more virus threats lurking

Scientists in China have analyzed other strains of H7 flu, and have determined that several of the strains are capable of jumping to humans. A couple strains have already been shown to successfully infect ferrets. It’s thought that H7N9, like other pandemic strains of avian influenza, began in water fowl, was transmitted to domestic poultry,  reassorted with H9N2, and then infected people. The moral of the story? Other avian pandemics may be waiting in the wings (pun only slightly intended).

Reuters – “To trace the evolution of H7N9 and its path into humans, researchers led by Maria Huachen Zhu and Yi Guan of the University of Hong Kong conducted field surveillance around the main H7N9 outbreak region and mapped out, or sequenced, genetic codes of a large number of bird flu viruses they found…They also found another previously unrecognized H7N7 virus strain had emerged and is circulating in poultry in China. In experiments testing this strain, they discovered it has the ability to infect ferrets – an animal model often used by scientists to find out more about what flu might do in humans – suggesting it could jump into people in future.”

Deadly Hemorrhagic Fever Appears in Uganda

Local health officials are scrambling to identify a small outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Uganda, with conflicting reports seperately identifying the causative virus as Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) and Ebola. Four patients have been hospitalized, with a fifth already dead from the virus. In a disturbing complication, one patient has apparently “escaped from the hospital” following collection of blood samples, prompting understandable fears of exacerbation of the virus’ spread. Both CCHF and Ebola are highly pathogenic, causing body pain, severe hemorrhaging, and death.

Daily Monitor – “Efforts to verify with the Health ministry whether the disease is Ebola or the Crimean- Congo haemorrhagic fever were futile as the officials did not answer our telephone calls. ‘The four patients have been put in isolation for close monitoring,’ Dr Otto said. The district health officer said the first patient at the hospital presented symptoms similar to that of Ebola which prompted him to take blood samples to Entebbe. Dr Otto urged the public to remain calm, saying a medical team was on the ground to handle the situation.

Scientific American In-Depth Report: The Specter of Chemical and Biological Weapons

Scientific American just put up a good overview of both recent developments in and the broad history of chemical and biological warfare. The pieces included are more chem-heavy (unsurprisingly), but it’s still a good refresher, especially with Syria apparently escalating again. Take a moment to check it out.

Nano Breakthrough For Navy Lab; Tiny Sensors To Detect Explosives, Bio Weapons, Rotten Food

Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory want to use nanowires to detect everything from biological weapons to spoilt food. For the first time, researchers were able to overcome the difficulty associated with creating the wires. Until now, nanowires have had to be grown, making mass production extremely difficult. However, researchers have found a way to etch the wires, rather than grow them, making embedding them in uniforms or refrigerators possible.

Breaking Defense – “‘The big thing with getting to this point is finding a way to produce this in a scaleable and reproducible fashion,’ principal investigator Christopher Field told me… Basically, the Navy scientists etch a cluster of nanowires and put a small amount of power pulsing through them. When a molecule from an explosive’s gas or a chemical weapon brushes against the nanowires this disrupts the charge. Then scientists analyze the disruption to discover what caused it.”

(image courtesy of Marie and Alistair Knock/Taraji Blue/Flickr)

Forbes Piece: “Bioterrorism: A Dirty Little Threat With Huge Potential Consequences”

For those of you who wonder why we do what we do (and think us arguing our own merits may seem a bit biased), check out this excellent Forbes Opinion piece on the potential threat of bioterrorism.

Excerpt:

“Although federal efforts involving numerous agencies to combat the threat of bioterrorism expanded rapidly following the 2011 anthrax letter attacks, which killed five people and infected 17 others, various congressional commissions, nongovernmental organizations, industry representatives and other experts have highlighted flaws in these activities. A 2008 report published by the congressionally-mandated Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism concluded that ‘…unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack in the world by the end of 2013.’ It went on to say ‘The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.’ Making matters worse, unlike most other terrorist attacks, a biological attack could infect victims without their knowledge, and days could pass before victims develop deadly symptoms. To address this problem, the U.S. has been forced to implement air quality monitors throughout the country and stockpile antibiotics for emergency use.”