This week is another mixed bag highlighting recent alumni achievements and program happenings, discussing the release of annual State Department reports on global compliance with the NPT, CWC, and BWC, and Senate Republicans’ latest report on the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Several new publications and upcoming events are included, as well as open calls for experts and fellowship opportunities.
Fairfax County Health Department Recognizes Mason for Pandemic Response
Recently, “George Mason University was recognized by the Fairfax County Health Department (FCHD) for being an outstanding system partner in managing and operationalizing the university’s pandemic planning, response, and recovery. The partnership, which began long before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been vital in enhancing the health and well-being of the shared communities.”
The same piece announcing this interviewed a Biodefense PhD alumna, Julie Zobel, who is currently associate vice president of Safety, Emergency, and Enterprise Risk Management and Mason’s COVID director-“Julie Zobel…expressed her gratitude for the partnership between Mason and FCHD. “We are honored to have worked alongside the Fairfax County Health Department to serve our community during these challenging times,” said Zobel. “The success of our pandemic response would not have been possible without this partnership. We look forward to continuing our collaboration and commitment to public health”’
Pathogens Project Convenes Meeting in Geneva
The initiative on “Creating the Framework for Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research” hosted a public meeting in Geneva, Switzerland this week. This conference included Pathogens Project taskforce members, policy leaders, journalists, scientists, and civic leaders, among others.
The conference featured both private and public (recorded) workshops. Furthermore, according to the Project’s site, “It will produce a final summary report with recommendations, along with individually prepared papers focused on risk assessment and mitigation of high-risk pathogen research. Conference papers will be published in a special edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and made available on the Bulletin’s website.”
Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz was on a panel at the event, “Empirical studies tracking risks”, alongside Dr. Rocco Casagrande (Founder and Chair of the Board, Gryphon Scientific), Dr. Weiwen Zhang (Distinguished Professor of Synthetic Biology and Biochemical Engineering, Tianjin University of China), and Dr. Sandra López-Vergès (Senior Health Researcher and Chief, Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Sciences). Koblentz discussed ongoing work from the Global BioLabs project, which he co-leads with Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London. Global BioLabs offers an interactive map of BSL-4 and BSL-3+ facilities globally and recently released Global BioLabs Report 2023.
State Department Releases Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Compliance Reports
The State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance recently released the 2023 Annual Report on Compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the 2023 Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments Report. The latter notes BWC compliance issues in the People’s Republic of China, Islamic Republic of Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Russian Federation. This includes discussion of the lack of information needed to assess if China has eliminated its BW program, concerns about Iran’s ability to produce lethal BW agents, knowledge of North Korea’s BW program, and Russia’s violations of Articles I and II of the BWC.
The report also notes concerns about lack of transparency in Myanmar’s nuclear work (though evidence does not indicate that the country violated the NPT). The appended report on CWC compliance discusses further concerns with Myanmar and other countries’ compliance with the treaty. The report explains that “Four States Parties – Burma, Iran, Russia, and Syria – are certified in non-compliance with the CWC. Russia and Syria were first certified in non-compliance in April 2018. Iran was first certified in non-compliance in November 2018. Burma was first certified in non-compliance in 2019. Additional information is available in the 2023 classified Condition (10)(C) Reports. The United States also cannot certify the People’s Republic of China’s compliance, which was first reported in 2021.”
Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Madeline Roty (Biodefense MS ’21) authored a piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2020 discussing Myanmar’s past with CW and US efforts to get the country to reconcile and come into compliance with the CWC. Following the 2021 coup d’état and the ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar is unlikely to meet the requirements needed to be in compliance, despite the progress outlined by Koblentz and Roty.
Senate Republicans Release COVID Origins Report
Senate Republicans have released their report exploring the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, building on the short interim report released in October 2022. Two documents titled “Muddy Waters: The Origins of COVID-19” were released; one by the Muddy Waters Group and another prepared by Senator Roger Marshall alongside Dr. Bob Kadlec, Bob Foster, and members of the 117th GOP Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee’s staff. The report was a product of the work of former Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who commissioned the report and oversaw the release of the October HELP committee interim report. Readers may recall the controversy that accompanied the release of that interim report, which coincided with the release of articles by Vanity Fair and ProPublica that were widely criticized for poor quality translations and other inaccuracies we discussed in November.
That troubled trend seems to continue in this new report, with admitted circumstantial evidence used to find that “The preponderance of information affirms the plausibility of a research-related incident that was likely unintentional resulting from failures of biosafety containment during vaccine-related research.”
Axios explains that the report “…argues that scientists haven’t found any naturally occurring viruses with the same composition of the coronavirus, and that there’s evidence the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the first known cases connected to the wet market were reported…It also argues that it appears Chinese researchers began development of at least two COVID vaccines in November 2019, including at the WIV, which “means SARS-CoV-2 would have been present at the WIV before the known outbreak of the pandemic,” and “It also documents numerous instances of lab safety concerns throughout 2019, including around the time when the virus may have first appeared.”
Much of this, however, relies on the same previously disputed points made in the interim report and the accompanying ProPublica and Vanity Fair pieces. Furthermore, as Caitlin Owens highlights in another piece for Axios, the reports rely on circumstantial evidence which means “The absence of evidence pointing, for example, to a precise transmission route from animals to humans will lead to very different interpretations of the same information.”
Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist who has worked on high-profile studies supporting the idea of a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2 told Owens that the report “…demonstrates, in my view, a political agenda that’s meant to bolster the idea that the lab leak hypothesis is more supported than it is. But also it is so full of just factual errors.” Rasmussen also counters a number of key assertions made in the new report, including those such as the presence of a furin cleavage site on SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein is in itself suspicious and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was dealing with substantial biosafety problems that Party leadership was concerned about.
All told, this report seems unlikely to change much or anything in this ongoing public debate.
Understanding Cyber-Warfare: Politics, Policy and Strategy
Chris Whyte and Brian Mazanec (a Biodefense PhD alumnus) are pleased to announce the publication of the second edition of their textbook Understanding Cyber-Warfare: Politics, Policy and Strategy (Routledge, 2023). This second edition of their popular textbook offers an accessible introduction to the historical, technical, and strategic context of global cyber conflict. The second edition has been revised and updated throughout, with three new chapters, to include coverage of the role of cyber in the war in Ukraine as well as a discussion of the role of emerging information technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing in shaping the dynamics of global cyber conflict. The second edition has recieved positive reviews. For example James R. Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, called it “an authoritative tutorial on the arcane complexities of cyber warfare” and said this edition “updates a previous version and makes the book more contemporary. It is a must-read for those who are serious about mastering this unique medium of combat, in all its dimensions.” More details can be found here.
“Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning for Bioenergy Research: Opportunities and Challenge”
New from the US Department of Energy’s Genomic Science Program: “The integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) with automated experimentation, genomics, biosystems design, and bioprocessing represents a new data-driven research paradigm poised to revolutionize scientific investigation and, particularly, bioenergy research. To identify the opportunities and challenges in this emerging research area, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Biological and Environmental Research program (BER) and Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) held a joint virtual workshop on AI/ML for Bioenergy Research (AMBER) on August 23–25, 2022.”
“Approximately 50 scientists with various expertise from academia, industry, and DOE national laboratories met to assess the current and future potential for AI/ML and laboratory automation to advance biological understanding and engineering. They particularly examined how integrating AI/ML tools with laboratory automation could accelerate biosystems design and optimize biomanufacturing for a variety of DOE mission needs in energy and the environment.”
The report describing the workshop findings is now available here.
“The Making of a Biosafety Officer”
David Gillum discusses the roles of biosafety professionals in this piece for Issues in Science and Technology, writing in part “The question of how the biosafety community generates and transmits knowledge is interesting in itself, but it is also an urgent issue. The need for biosafety workers is growing just as current professionals are skewing older: an estimated 54% are over 50 and one of the few surveys of the field suggests there are six times as many biosafety officers over 70 as there are under 30. Preparing more of us—and keeping the public safe as the complexity of biological research, health, and manufacturing projects burgeons—is made more difficult by the importance of tacit knowledge in our education. Methods for understanding, communicating, and mitigating risk are difficult to transfer to others. To enhance public health and safety, people in my line of work should ease this transfer by considering how the profession might be standardized and formalized.”
“Viral Families and Disease X: A Framework for U.S. Pandemic Preparedness Policy”
In this policy brief for the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Schuerger et al. explain that “Pandemic threats are increasing as globalization, urbanization, and encroachment on animal habitats cause infectious outbreaks to become more frequent and severe. It is imperative that the United States build a pipeline of medical countermeasure development, beginning with basic scientific research and culminating in approved therapies. This report assesses preparedness for families of viral pathogens of pandemic potential and offers recommendations for steps the U.S. government can take to prepare for future pandemics.”
“Integrating Public and Ecosystem Health to Foster Resilience: Proceedings of a Workshop”
“Ecosystems form the foundation upon which society can survive and thrive, providing food, water, air, materials, and recreation. The connections between people and their environments are under stress from human-driven climate change, pollution, resource exploitation, and other actions that may have implications for public health. Existing intellectual frameworks including One Health, Planetary Health, ecosystem services, and nature-based solutions help to connect different elements related to the resilience of public health and ecological health systems. However, because of the breadth of this issue, many implications regarding public health are not well characterized, leading to gaps in understanding the interconnections between public health and ecosystem health systems and how ecosystem resiliency may affect public health.”
“The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a workshop in September 2022 focused on the integration of public and ecosystem health to foster resilience. This workshop was designed to inform the development of a research agenda aimed at bridging the knowledge-to-action gap and spur a move from research to policy and practice. Participants included a broad range of interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners from the public health, natural resource management, and environmental protection communities. The workshop provided a forum for the exchange of knowledge, discussion of critical gaps in understanding and practice, and identification of promising research that could support the development of domestic and international policy and practice.”
“The proceedings summarizing the workshop is now available for free download, and a public webinar exploring the workshop topics will take place virtually in early May. Click below to download the proceedings, register for the webinar, and visit the project page to more about this publication.”
“The Right People and the Right Question: Getting Chemical Weapons Out of Syria”
In this recent video story for the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, Tom Countryman discusses his tenure as the Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation as the Department navigated concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons. He highlights key lessons learned in doing this, including the need to mind the political context one is operating in, the importance of knowing who the right people are and being able to motivate and mobilize them, appropriately identifying goals and what is needed to achieve them, and, finally, not allowing the difficulties of political relationships to overshadow common interests.
“Reducing the Problem: Eliminating Syria’s Chemical Weapons”
Andy Weber discusses elimination of the Syrian CW stockpile in this video story for the Stanley Center. He covers how he came to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs and more, saying in part “Sometimes, whether it’s Gaddafi in Libya, or Assad in Syria, it’s unsavory characters, who have these horrific weapons. And you have to work with them sometimes, and it’s hard, and it’s challenging, and you have to keep your eyes open. You need to make sure you’re not indirectly helping them in another area. But that’s where good oversight comes in, and you have to think about the objective of all these programs. The objective is to save lives, to prevent mass casualties in any country, anywhere in the world. These are global programs that improve global security.”
“Armed Conflict and Nuclear Security: Implications for Europe”
Muhammed Ali Alkiş discusses the efficacy of the traditional approach to nuclear security in this recent publication for SIPRI: “The traditional approach to nuclear security is unlikely to be effective against the full spectrum of current threats, including those posed by state actors. The lessons learned from the Russian occupation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, the potential radiological consequences of armed attacks against nuclear facilities and the potential increase in the number of nuclear power states in the future underscore the need for a strong international framework to address nuclear security challenges.”
“The European Union (EU) is committed to implementing the highest international standards for nuclear security and may therefore be in a position to lead efforts to address threats of armed attacks against nuclear installations. This paper provides a range of potential policy recommendations and actionable steps that the EU and its member states could take at legal, institutional and operational levels to minimize the nuclear security threats posed by armed conflict in the future. While they may appear politically challenging or even unrealistic at present, the conflict in Ukraine highlights the very real need for the types of actions recommended by this paper.”
“Technology Primer: Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning”
Checkout this new report from the Harvard Belfer Center: “Artificial Intelligence (AI), can be defined as the theory and application of machines—especially computer programs—to perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as image captioning and generation, speech recognition and synthesis, natural language understanding and production, tool assembly and utilization, as well as various other perception-action based engagements. AI, in its current technological state, is being applied in various industries and domains, such as online advertising, financial trading, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and robotics. The lucrative market opportunities offered by AI applications have attracted investments from tech giants like Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft, as well as research universities and startups.”
“Machine Learning (ML), commonly categorized as a subfield of AI, is a field of study concerning the automatic discovery of historical patterns in data using statistical algorithms. ML’s driving principle is that historical patterns are likely to reappear in the future. The discovered historical patterns can therefore be leveraged to make accurate predictions on data that has not been seen before. Once an algorithm is trained, it can be applied to new, larger streams of data. ML is already an integral component of many deployed commercial applications, such as content generation (e.g., text, image, audio, video generation), virtual assistants, social media feed ranking, content recommendation systems, financial market prediction, and healthcare screening and diagnostic tools, as well as administrative applications. In addition, ML is foundational in various other emerging technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and next-generation cybersecurity.”
“Currently, United States policy with regards to AI often derives from interpretations of various pre-existing legislations and legal precedents. However, with the increased awareness of AI-related risks (e.g., bias, accountability, misuse, etc.), and the potential size of their impact, over the last decade, the number of proposed bills containing AI provisions significantly increased at both the state and federal levels (i.e., from two bills in 2012 to 131 in 2021), with 2% of them becoming law at the federal level and 20% of them becoming law at the state level. Similarly, policies and regulatory frameworks are being crafted to guide the development and application of AI in other continents too, with Europe and Asia leading the process. Acknowledging the potential impact of this technology on human life and societal dynamics, there is a pressing need for U.S. legislators and policymakers to remain engaged in the ethical and practical development of artificial intelligence.”
Lessons From the COVID War: An Investigative Report
The independent, nonpartisan Covid Crisis Group has spent two years investigating the causes and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Schar School of Policy and Government and Biodefense Graduate Program are proud to host two members of the group, Andrew Kilianski and Melissa Harvey, for an in-depth discussion of the group’s long-awaited report on what went wrong—and right—with America’s response to the pandemic: Lessons from the Covid War: An Investigative Report (Public Affairs, 2023).
The Covid Crisis Group is a remarkable group of 34 distinguished practitioners and scholars from a variety of backgrounds who came together determined to learn and share the most valuable lessons from the worst peacetime catastrophe of modern times. Lessons from the Covid War is plain-spoken and clear-sighted. It cuts through the jumble of information to make some sense of it all and answer: What just happened to us, and why? And crucially, how, next time, could we do better? Because there will be a next time.
Register here: https://gmu.universitytickets.com/w/event.aspx?id=1471
Book Event: Open Source Investigations in the Age of Google
From the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “How did a journalist find out who was responsible for bombing hospitals in Syria without leaving his desk in New York? How can South Sudanese activists safely track and detail the weapons in their communities, and make sure that global audiences take notice? What are policy makers, lawyers, and intelligence agencies doing to keep up with and make use of these activities? A team of authors tackle these questions in their new book “Open Source Investigations in the Age of Google.”‘
“This new interdisciplinary book seeks to answer these questions and more, with contributions by prize-winning practitioners, experts, and rising stars from across the open source investigation community. Painting a comprehensive picture of the digital information space today, it explores the manner and methods in which current open source investigations are conducted, as well as examines the opportunities and challenges they present to salient issues to the information environment such as trust and transparency, accountability, justice, amongst others.”‘
“Please join CSIS virtually on April 24, 1-2 pm EDT for a panel discussion on open-source investigations moderated by Diane Cooke, visiting fellow with the International Security Program. The conversation will include Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists; Christiaan Triebert, journalist on the New York Times Visual Investigation Team; and Henrietta Wilson, Senior Analyst for the Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation, SOAS University of London & King’s College London.”
Online Event: Civil Society at the 5th CWC Review Conference
From the CWC Coalition: “The Fifth Five-Year Review Conference (RC-5) for the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention will be held in the Hague from May 15-19, 2023.”
“At the CWC RevCon, member states and the broader chemical weapons disarmament community will gather to assess past achievements, treaty implementation and compliance, and discuss plans to strengthen the CWC in the years ahead.”
“You are invited to join a virtual discussion on the upcoming Fifth Five-Year CWC Review Conference (RC-5), major issues to be addressed, and the role of civil society and non-governmental organizations.”
“We will be joined by Elisabeth Waechter, Head of Public Affairs at the OPCW. Paul Walker, the Chair of the CWC Coalition, will moderate.”
This event will take place on April 26 at 10 am EST. Register here.
National Biodefense Science Board Public Meeting
The NBSB will meet virtually on May 4 at 2 pm EST to discuss lessons from COVID-19 and will present recommendations on several topics, including collection, analysis, and sharing of operational health data, uses of virtual healthcare during disaster response, and disaster response challenges specific to rural and underserved communities. Register here.
Virtual Workshop: Prioritizing Actions for Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness
From the National Academies: “Please join us May 4 & 18, 2023 from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET for a virtual symposium examining how to strengthen the evidence-based prioritization of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and response capabilities.
The symposium will convene global health planning stakeholders, including those in government and academia, and across health- and non-health sectors to:
- Review assessment tools and how, independently and together, they relate to national action planning.
- Gain insight into how countries and organizations currently select priorities in funding for epidemic prevention, detection, and response.
- Assess evidence for effective prioritization approaches to building disease surveillance and risk communication capabilities.
- Identify governance structures that can support robust and reliable systems for epidemic and pandemic preparedness and response investments.
This symposium is in collaboration with the Division on Earth and Life Studies. Learn more about this workshop by visiting the event webpage.”
Nobel Prize Summit-Truth, Trust and Hope
Taking place May 24-26 this year in DC and virtually, this Nobel Prize Summit asks “How can we build trust in truth, facts and scientific evidence so that we can create a hopeful future for all?”
“Misinformation is eroding our trust in science and runs the risk of becoming one of the greatest threats to our society today.”
“Join us at this years’ Nobel Prize Summit which brings together laureates, leading experts and you in a conversation on how we can combat misinformation, restore trust in science and create a hopeful future.”
Learn more and register here.
CSWMD 2023 Annual Symposium: WMD in the Decisive Decade
“The National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) invites you to join us on 14 June 2023 for the virtual Annual CSWMD Symposium, titled WMD in the Decisive Decade.”
“This year’s symposium will explore the cognitive impacts WMD has on strategic decision making and the challenges associated with operating in an environment where WMD has been employed. It will be an opportunity for the WMD community to engage with officials and thought leaders on current WMD challenges at the unclassified level, including keynote addresses by Richard Johnson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and CWMD Policy and Rebecca Hersman, Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.”
“For more information and to register for this event click here. Please RSVP by 9 JUNE 2023.”
“We look forward to hosting you for the event. For more information about the WMD Center and reference our research, please visit our website at https://wmdcenter.ndu.edu/ and follow us on Twitter and on LinkedIn.”
Gordon Research Conference: Cross-Cutting Science Facilitating Collaboration Across the Threat-Science Research Community
“The Nonproliferation, Counterproliferation and Disarmament Science GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.”
This conference will take place July 9-14 in Ventura, CA. Learn more and register here.
Call for Applications: Early-Career Fellowship for Reducing Nuclear Weapons Risks
The Council on Strategic Risks “is announcing a continuation of its Early-Career Fellowship for Reducing Nuclear Weapons Risks. Through this six-month program, early-career professionals will work with leading experts from CSR’s team and network to develop a better understanding of practical risk reduction concepts and to generate new ideas regarding:
- Nuclear strategic stability
- Strengthening norms against nuclear weapons threats and use
- Avoiding miscalculations and preventing accidents/incidents
- Preventing and addressing nuclear proliferation
- Responsibilities of nuclear weapons-capable states”
Learn more and apply here.
Seeking Subject Matter Expert(s) (SMEs) with Experience Educating Global Audiences on the Importance of Securing Emerging Technologies
“CRDF Global is seeking subject matter expert(s) (SMEs) to engage and educate global audiences. The expert(s) will work on deliverables relating to building a culture of security in the private sector. These deliverables will include the development of an online asynchronous course and four hybrid hackathons, which will take place at local incubator hubs in several countries.”
“The expert(s) will design and develop an asynchronous course to counter misuse and raise awareness of emerging technologies with potential weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related applications by state and non-state actors. The audience for this course will be individuals in the private sector (particularly in start-ups, innovation hubs, and incubator spaces) in various countries globally. This asynchronous course should train key stakeholders on how to develop and foster a culture of security.”
Learn more here.
Weekly Trivia Question
You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to email@example.com will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). Our question this week is: “In 1984, what group spread Salmonella enterica at restaurants and shops in Dulles, Oregon in an attempt to influence local elections?”
Last week, our question was: “In the 2011 film Contagion, Dr. Erin Mears (played by Kate Winslet) is an officer in which CDC program?” The answer is the Epidemic Intelligence Service.