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.