Pandora Report 3.3.2023

Happy end to yet another very eventful week! Today we are covering the Department of Energy’s updated assessment on the start of the pandemic, the subsequent discourse, the IC’s assessment on Havana syndrome, the newly-signed NSM 19, and Iran’s investigation into alleged poisonings of schoolgirls.

Spy Agencies Gone Wild RE: COVID-19 Origins? Not Quite…

This week, the Department of Energy (DOE) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provided assessments and statements indicating that they believe the initial spread of SARS-CoV-2 was the result of a lab leak in Wuhan. The initial firestorm was kicked off by a Wall Street Journal article with a less-than-helpful headline regarding DOE’s delivery of an assessment to the White House. In the following days, the FBI director provided statements indicating his agencies reached the same conclusion. Subsequent discussion has been rife with poor understandings of the Intelligence Community (IC) and intelligence itself, in addition to flawed claims about what these assessments actually mean. This section aims to break down what all has happened in this area this week and highlight the intrinsically interdisciplinary nature of intelligence and national security more broadly.

What Actually Happened This Week

As previously mentioned, the Wall Street Journal published an article on Sunday entitled “Lab Leak Most Likely Origin of COVID-19 Pandemic, Energy Department Now Says” to much uproar from all matter of folks. The assessment referenced by the article stemmed from analysis conducted by Z-Division at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which led DOE to conclude “as part of a new government-wide intelligence assessment that a lab accident was most likely the triggering event for the world’s worst pandemic in a century.”

As the Washington Post explains, “…other intelligence agencies involved in the classified update — completed in the past few weeks and kept under wraps — were divided on the question of covid-19’s origins, with most still maintaining that a natural, evolutionary “spillover” from animals was the most likely explanation. Even the Energy Department’s analysis was carefully hedged, as the officials expressed only “low confidence” in their conclusion, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified report.”

“U.S. officials confirmed that an updated assessment of covid-19’s origins was completed this year, and said the document was based on fresh data as well as new analysis by experts from eight intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council.” Furthermore, the IC remains firm in its view that SARS-CoV-2 was absolutely not developed as a biological weapon.

Of course, this news sparked a lot of conversation from lab leak and natural origin proponents alike. As NPR notes:

…at the end of the day, the origin of the pandemic is also a scientific question. Virologists who study pandemic origins are much less divided than the U.S. intelligence community. They say there is “very convincing” data and “overwhelming evidence” pointing to an animal origin.

In particular, scientists published two extensive, peer-reviewed papers in Science in July 2022, offering the strongest evidence to date that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in animals at a market in Wuhan, China. Specifically, they conclude that the coronavirus most likely jumped from a caged wild animal into people at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where a huge COVID-19 outbreak began in December 2019.

Virologist Angela Rasmussen, who contributed to one of the Science papers, says the DOE’s “low confident” conclusion doesn’t “negate the affirmative evidence for zoonotic [or animal] origin nor do they add any new information in support of lab origin.”

“Many other [news] outlets are presenting this as new conclusive proof that the lab origin hypothesis is equally as plausible as the zoonotic origin hypothesis,” Rasmussen wrote in an email to NPR, “and that is a misrepresentation of the evidence for either.”

The FBI also re-iterated its moderate confidence assessment that the virus originated in a lab, with FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighting this in an interview with Fox News. To summarize, the FBI maintained its moderate confidence assessment that the COVID-19 pandemic began with a lab accident, DOE changed its view to that above, and the CIA and another agency remain undecided as they did in the 2021 unclassified assessment. The others continue to favor a natural origin. So where does that leave us?

The Breakdown

As this discussion has been fraught with confusion about the IC, we will cover some brief basics about the IC’s structure and work. First, the IC is broad and diverse. It is composed of 18 organizations, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the 17 constituent organizations that report to ODNI. ODNI and the Central Intelligence Agency are independent organizations. Nine others are Department of Defense elements (including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the DoD service intelligence elements). Seven other organizations are elements of other departments and agencies. These include the “Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence; the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis and US Coast Guard Intelligence; the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Office of National Security Intelligence; the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research; and the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.”

Naturally, each of these agencies has its strong suits and purposes, though there is intentional overlap. The intelligence failures in the lead up to the events of September 11, 2001, significantly changed the IC, bringing the abolition of the Director of Central Intelligence, the establishment of ODNI and the Director of National Intelligence position, creation of new agencies and restructurings of existing ones, and an overall effort to improve coordination, collaboration, and communication in the community. The main failure in the case of 9/11 was in not “connecting the dots”, so there have been strong efforts to make agencies share information in a timely, useful manner. Of course, this has not made the IC immune to failures, but it has been a positive step in improving coordination and creating appropriate overlap that can help provide more comprehensive intelligence to decision makers.

Furthermore, far from simply being “spy stuff”, intelligence draws on broad expertise and knowledge sources in a cycle of evaluation and feedback. In fact, it is estimated that about 80% of intelligence relies on open information, including news and academic sources. Information gaps and limitations may require further collection, but the bulk of information is often times openly available. Furthermore, the community is simply not full of a bunch of spies. For example, in 2003, it was estimated that just 10% of the CIA’s workforce were clandestine officers-the ones that recruit sources and go on covert missions like you might see in the movies. The rest are all kinds of analysts, mission management and admin folks, and even all kinds of scientists, physicians, public health experts, and so on. Agencies oftentimes have entire directorates dedicated to S&T work, and there are entire sub-organizations dedicated to specific S&T-related topics, including the National Center for Medical Intelligence.

There is also confusion about how analysts conduct their work. The 2011 IC Consumers Guide referenced by many news outlets and scholars discussing these assessments and their confidence levels explains how analysts conduct their work. It reads in part “Intelligence analysts are generally assigned to a particular geographic or functional specialty area. Analysts obtain information from all sources pertinent to their area of responsibility through information collection, processing, and forwarding systems. Analysts may tap into these systems to obtain answers to specific questions or to generate information they may need.”

“Analysts receive incoming information, evaluate it, test it against other information and against their personal knowledge and expertise, produce an assessment of the current status of a particular area under analysis, and then forecast future trends or outcomes. The analyst also develops requirements for the collection of new information…Analysts rarely work alone; they operate within a system that includes peer review and oversight by more senior analysts.

With this information in mind, it is clear that statements that paint the IC as a hive mind that produces assessments on political whims without oversight, methodologies, or internal review processes are unhelpful and untrue. Though it is not publicly known who specifically wrote these assessments, it is reasonable to believe they were made in good faith and in accordance with the above information. In addition to personal knowledge and expertise, importantly, IC analysts do have access to classified information-a fact seemingly overlooked by many in the last week.

One of the main points of confusion in public discussion of this has centered on why the Department of Energy is making an assessment on the origins of a virus. It is true that the Department of Energy, as the name implies, oversees national energy policy and manages nuclear power and weapons, but that is not its only tasking. In fact, the idea that eventually led to the Human Genome Project was conceived in the Department’s Office of Science. DOE has an intelligence element (as referenced above) and also oversees the National Laboratories, a broad system that aims to address critical scientific challenges “from combating climate change to discovering the origins of our universe”. Three of these laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia) are National Nuclear Security Administration labs, meaning they do work related to nuclear weapons in addition to other kinds of research-including global security research. The labs do work in conjunction with other organizations and, in some cases, support the IC. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, has its Laboratory Intelligence Program, which has been at the heart of this frenzy and provides “critical science and technology support to the intelligence community’s foundational intelligence missions in strategic intelligence and anticipatory intelligence, as well as mission objectives in counterproliferation, cyber intelligence and counterterrorism.” The point is-DOE is not just a bunch of physicists working on the nuclear weapons stockpile. The Department is as large and diverse as its taskings, including those requiring expertise in the life and social sciences.

Much attention has also been paid to the confidence levels of the assessments. WSJ noted later in its piece that the assessment was made with low confidence, a term used by analysts when “…information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information, or that the IC has significant concerns or problems with the information sources.” Unfortunately, this information is not particularly helpful for the general public as the assessment itself is classified, so it is not known what information led to the assessment and why specifically it was rated low confidence. Analytical confidence can be influenced by several factors, including analyst expertise (which is likely limited given the nature of this specific assessment), time constraints, source reliability and corroboration, and more.

As ODNI identified in its unclassified October 2021 Intelligence Community Assessment on COVID-19 Origins, at the time, four elements and the National Intelligence Council also assessed with low confidence that initial SARS-CoV-2 infection was likely caused by natural exposure to an infected animal. One agency (the FBI) was noted to assess that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident. This assessment was made with moderate confidence, which “…generally indicates that the information being used in the analysis may be interpreted in various ways, or that the IC has alternative viewpoints on the significance or meaning of the information, or that the information is credible and plausible but it is not sufficiently corroborated to warrant a higher level of confidence.” At that time, three other IC elements remained unable to coalesce around either explanation. Again, however, these assessments are classified, so there is no way of knowing why they were judged this way in the open source.

Others have taken aim at a low confidence assessment finding a lab origin “very likely”, arguing that these terms are mutually exclusive. Analytic confidence is separate from the estimative language employed by the IC. Estimative language (“very likely”, “almost certainly”, “unlikely”, etc.) expresses an assessment or judgement. Assessments are oftentimes based on incomplete information, which is why analysts use estimative language to express the likelihood or probability of something given what information is available. Because information gaps are inherent to this work, these products include declarations of underlying assumptions and judgements analysts made in their processes. Confidence levels “reflect the scope and quality of the information supporting its judgements.” In fact, to avoid confusion, the ODNI indicates that a confidence level and degree of likelihood should not be included in the same sentence. Again, as these assessments are classified, we do not know what assumptions were made nor what sources were used. However, it is possible and okay to judge that something is very likely with low confidence, particularly when dealing with something as complex as the origin of this virus.

The Bottom Line

Flashy news headlines aside, what have we really learned from these reports? Well…not much. It was well-established in late 2021 that the IC is unclear on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the events of this week have not settled that debate. As the NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, told the press this week, “There is not a consensus right now in the U.S. government about exactly how covid started…That work is still ongoing, but the president believes it’s really important that we continue that work and that we find out as best we can how it started so that we can better prevent a future pandemic.”

Furthermore, it is important to address the question of to what extent we can know this and what it would change at this point. China is clearly not going to cooperate on any kind of investigation into COVID-19’s origin. That has been clear since the early days of the pandemic and is part of a pattern of behavior on the part of the CCP. Irrespective of where this virus actually came from, it is clear that China did cover up its initial spread in the population, censoring netizens and healthcare professionals until it was impossible to conceal further. While an in-depth investigation into the start of this pandemic has always been needed, hyper focusing on this runs the risk of diverting attention from other critical issues we have much more information readily available on. China did cover up the initial spread of this virus and has been disingenuous in its reporting and handling of it ever since. The United States failed to adequately respond to this pandemic for a variety of reasons, a fact that does not depend on how the virus initially spread. It is vital to balance desires to find the truth of COVID-19’s origins, something that is indisputably important, with using the information that is available and can reasonably be acquired to address these problems before the next pandemic. This information could inform debates on laboratory safety and oversight, though, as Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz demonstrated in his interview with the New York Times this week, there is a wealth of information available already driving these discussions.

Finally, this all demonstrates the intrinsically inter/multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral nature of these problems. False dichotomies pitting national defense against public health, particularly in terms of funding, are not helpful, particularly as it is increasingly clear that public health threats are critical national security threats. As the IC learned in the early years of this century, siloing information is incredibly dangerous-a lesson we cannot afford to have to re-learn at the intersection of public health and national security. While respect for expertise and experience is an absolute necessity, understanding the need to collaborate, work across lanes, and recognize what unique capabilities others can offer is equally vital. These threats are not going anywhere, so learning to understand how different disciplines approach these problems and how best to work together is of the utmost importance.

New ICA-Havana Syndrome Very Likely Not Caused by Foreign Adversary

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines released a statement this week regarding the Intelligence Community’s assessment of the mysterious “Havana syndrome”, indicating the IC finds it very unlikely a foreign adversary is responsible for the phenomenon. The Washington Post writes “The new intelligence assessment caps a years-long effort by the CIA and several other U.S. intelligence agencies to explain why career diplomats, intelligence officers and others serving in U.S. missions around the world experienced what they described as strange and painful acoustic sensations. The effects of this mysterious trauma shortened careers, racked up large medical bills and in some cases caused severe physical and emotional suffering.”

The DNI Statement reads in part “Today we are sharing key judgments and investigative efforts from our Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) on Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs). This assessment builds on the Intelligence Community’s (IC) interim findings released last year, which described the IC’s judgment that U.S. adversaries, including Russia, were not engaged in a global campaign resulting in AHIs, but indicated that we continued to investigate whether a foreign actor was involved in a subset of cases. Since then, we continue to surge resources and expertise across the government to explore all possible explanations.”

“Based on the latest IC-wide effort, which has resulted in an ICA that will be issued today, I can share with you that most IC agencies have now concluded that it is “very unlikely” a foreign adversary is responsible for the reported AHIs. IC agencies have varying confidence levels because we still have gaps given the challenges collecting on foreign adversaries — as we do on many issues involving them.”

President Biden Signs National Security Memorandum to Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Advance Nuclear and Radioactive Material Security

This week, President Biden signed National Security Memorandum (NSM) 19 to Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Terrorism and Advance Nuclear and Radioactive Material Security. According to the White House, “This comprehensive new strategy advances several of President Biden’s most enduring national security priorities: protecting our nation and the international community from the existential threats posed by WMD terrorism and preventing non-state actors from using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.”

Among its central aims is that of keeping radioactive materials used in industry out of terrorists’ hands, notes the New York Times. The same article explains that “Details of the new memorandum are classified. Previous versions of the policy focused on securing fissile material commonly used in nuclear weapons such as the ones the United States used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The effort focuses on specific radioisotopes that terrorists could potentially use in so-called dirty bombs — improvised weapons that use explosives to blast radiological materials into the surrounding area, potentially sickening or killing people and causing environmental harm.”

President Biden’s Homeland Security Advisor, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, explained the impact of NSM 19 on the medical field at an event at the Nuclear Threat Initiative: “In her remarks, the homeland security adviser said that medical devices for treating blood with X-rays — a process that makes transfusions safer — have traditionally used cesium-137 as the radioactive source to produce those rays, but that alternatives that use less dangerous materials now exist…The Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages the largest public health care network in the country, recently removed all cesium-based blood irradiators from its hospitals, she said, and transitioned in October to machines that produce X-rays though different processes.”

This comes just over a month after a small quantity of cesium-137 went missing in Western Australia, prompting a large search for the tiny cylinder that lasted six days.

Iran Investigating Reports of Schoolgirl Poisonings

Iran announced this week it is investigating reports that several schoolgirls were poisoned as revenge for the role of young women in recent protests in the country. The Guardian explains “Iran’s deputy education minister, Younes Panahi, told reporters yesterday: “After the poisoning of several students in [the city of] Qom … it was found that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed.” He added: “It has been revealed that the chemical compounds used to poison students are not war chemicals … the poisoned students do not need aggressive treatment and a large percentage of the chemical agents used are treatable.”

Dan Kaszeta, author of multiple well-known works on chemical weapons, discussing Iran’s investigation

“Report: A Summary on Ending Biological Threats-Event Summary”

From the Council on Strategic Risks: “This report summarizes discussions held during a workshop hosted by the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) on September 26, 2022, focused on ending extreme risks from biological threats. For several years, CSR has convened diverse experts who agree that it is more feasible than ever to halt the spread of infectious disease threats from all sources before they cause significant damage. After several years of virtual discussions during the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic, this in-person, invitation-only event brought together experts from government, academia, industry, and non-profit organizations to discuss how to use technological advances, policy, and other tools to gauge progress, identify open questions and ongoing challenges, and think strategically about what steps must be done next.”

“Conversations and panels held during “The Summit on Ending Biological Threats” were held under the Chatham House Rule. This report does not represent consensus among participants, nor does it assign specific perspectives to any individual participant. Though many topics were covered throughout the Summit, conversation centered around a few core subject areas: pathogen early warning, public-private collaboration, interagency efforts and collaboration, and strategic communications. This summary report will discuss these central topics and provide a general overview of discussions.”

“A Bipartisan Approach to Pandemic Security? It’s Within Reach”

Beth Cameron, Gary Edson, and J. Stephen Morrison recently published this opinion piece with STAT News in which they discuss the findings of the “Democracy and Pandemic Security” roundtable convened by their respective organizations. They write in part “Covid-19 laid bare persistent inequities across America. Polarization, a comorbidity that made the pandemic worse, continues to impede a unified and effective response to public health threats, and not just those caused by viruses. When the next threat emerges — and it will — it is uncertain if most Americans will adhere to public health measures.”

“That is why our organizations — the Brown University School of Public Health Pandemic Center, the Covid Collaborative, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Health Policy Center — recently convened a diverse group of leaders to discuss how to better protect Americans from pandemic threats while at the same time reinforcing American values of freedom and democracy. The group included former governors and mayors; officials from red, blue, and purple states and from the Biden, Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations; as well as experts in incident management and pandemic inequity.”

“Prevention of Zoonotic Spillover”

From the WHO: “The devastating impact of COVID-19 on human health globally has prompted extensive discussions on how to better prepare for and safeguard against the next pandemic. Zoonotic spillover of pathogens from animals to humans is recognized as the predominant cause of emerging infectious diseases and as the primary cause of recent pandemics.”

“This spillover risk is increased by a range of factors (called drivers) that impact the nature, frequency and intensity of contact between humans and wild animals. Many of these drivers are related to human impact, for instance, deforestation and changes in land use and agricultural practices. While it is clear that the triad of prevention-preparedness-response (P-P-R) is highly relevant, there is much discussion on which of these three strategic activities in the field of emerging infectious disease should be prioritized and how to optimally target resources. For this, it is important to understand the scope of the respective activity and the consequences of prioritization. “

Read this position paper here.

“WHO Warns of Worsening Health Situation in Ukraine”

This Devex Inside Development piece discusses the WHO’s data on health care in Ukraine since Russia invaded the country last year. It reads in part “About 44% of people in liberated areas are seeking health care for chronic conditions, such as kidney and heart disease. One in 3 people can no longer afford to buy medicines. An estimated 10 million people may have a mental health condition. All this is happening against a backdrop of continued attacks on health care in the country. Since the war started, WHO has recorded more than 800 attacks on health care, a huge majority of which damaged or destroyed facilities, including hospitals and pharmacies.”

Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing

The Royal Society will host this hybrid summit March 6-8, 8:30- 6 pm GMT. “Building on previous events held in Washington, DC (2015) and Hong Kong (2018), the London meeting will continue the global dialogue on somatic and germline human genome editing. Major themes for discussion include developments in clinical trials and genome editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9, as well as social, ethical and accessibility considerations these scientific developments entail.”

“The three-day Summit is being organised by the Royal Society, the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, the US National Academies of Sciences and Medicine and The World Academy of Sciences. Find out more about the Summit’s Organising Committee, chaired by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge FMedSci FRS.”

Register here.

Report LaunchPreparing for Success at the Fifth Review Conference of the CWC: A Guide to the Issues

“The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) is pleased to invite you to the in-person launch of a new report on Preparing for Success at the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention: A Guide to the Issues. This is the first in a series of events the Institute is hosting in preparation for the Fifth CWC Review Conference, which is scheduled to take place from 15 to 19 May 2023.” One version will be hosted in The Hague on Monday, March 6 from 12:30-14:30 CET and another in Brussels on Tuesday, March 7 from 12:30-14:30 CET. Both will also be broadcast via Zoom.

Penetrate, Exploit, Disrupt, Destroy – with Dr. Craig J. Wiener

From the Alperovitch Institute: “Join us on Wednesday, March 15th at 5pm at the SAIS Hopkins Kenney Auditorium. Dr. Craig J. Wiener is recognized as an expert in major foreign adversary espionage, sabotage and strategic capabilities that pose threats to the U.S. Government (USG) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Dr. Wiener’s previous position was as the Senior Technical Analyst for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence where he fulfilled a role as DOE’s lead all source cyber threat analyst, the Department’s representative to the National Security Council for Cyber Operations, a key member of National Intelligence Council Special Analytic Groups, and a government briefer and/or advisor for Defense Science Board studies on Cyber as a Strategic Capability, Homeland Defense, Strategic Surprise and the future of US Military Superiority among other topics. Additionally, Dr. Wiener initiated and led studies for special nuclear weapons related threat and vulnerability analyses and advanced technical security threats to USG equities by foreign adversaries and engaged in the development, planning and operationalization of counter-adversary strategies across multiple domains of operations. Dr. Wiener joined the MITRE Corporation as a Technical Fellow in early-2020, where he supports key U.S. Government (USG) national security initiatives. He was recently appointed by the Secretary of Energy to the Electricity Advisory Committee to advise DOE on current and future electric grid reliability, resilience, security, sector interdependence, and policy issues.”

Dr. Wiener is an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program! Learn more and register for this event here.

Intelligence Studies Consortium

“On March 24, 2023, the Intelligence Studies Consortium is convening its third symposium, entitled New Perspectives in Intelligence Studies. This year, George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting. The symposium will be from 8 AM to 4 PM in Rooms 125-126 Van Metre Hall, 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA. The closest Metro is Virginia Square/GMU on the Orange and Silver lines.

The symposium will feature student presentations in four panels:

  • Russia and China
  • Violent Non-State Actors
  • Emerging Technologies
  • Transnational Challenges

There will be an 8:30 AM keynote address from the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Shannon Corless, and a lunchtime conversation with General Michael V. Hayden.

We encourage students to attend in person. We have also provided a livestream option for those not in the Washington DC area.”

Learn more and register here.

Charity Entrepreneurship 2023 Charity Ideas

Charity Entrepreneurship currently has a call open to support the launch of a nonprofit in Biosecurity and Large-Scale Global Health. Possible organizations includes: “An organization that addresses antimicrobial resistance by advocating for better (pull) funding mechanisms to drive the development and responsible use of new antimicrobials,” and “An advocacy organization that promotes academic guidelines to restrict potentially harmful “dual-use” research.” Learn more and apply for these grants here.

Sustainable Diagnostic Containment Laboratories – Request for Expressions of Interest

“This Expression of Interest (RFEI) is seeking bold ideas that will reinvent the diagnostic laboratory, making it fit-for-purpose in resource-limited contexts globally. These innovative solutions are expected to reimagine the physical laboratory in order to reduce ongoing operational and maintenance costs and allow sustainable presence of safe and secure handling of high-consequence pathogenic materials, whilst maintaining and/or optimizing core functions of a diagnostic laboratory in low- and middle- income countries.”

“This RFEI represents Phase I of a dual-phase approach to development of a Grand Challenge for Sustainable Diagnostic Laboratories. The pool of Expressions of Interest received will be used to inform the scope of a full Grand Challenge program in Phase II, under which Grand Challenges Canada will award funding. Submission of an Expression of Interest does not constitute an application for funding; however, Expressions of Interest will receive feedback from an external review process designed to improve the quality of full proposals submitted for an open call for funding applications in Phase II. Most promising Expressions of Interest may also be shortlisted for direct invitations to submit full proposals for funding in Phase II.”

Learn more and register 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 will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). This week, we are throwing it back to middle school English class: This chemical agent features in Roald Dahl’s famous short story, The Landlady, in which the main character is given a tea that tastes of bitter almonds. What is the name of this agent?

The correct answer to last week’s question, “What is the first multilateral disarmament treaty that banned an entire category of WMD?” is the Biological Weapons Convention.

Pandora Report: 2.24.2023

This week we have several exciting announcements, a leadership change at Africa CDC, and more to cover. We also have plenty new publications, including multiple from our own students and faculty. This edition rounds out with new upcoming events, an AMR resource from the CDC, and, as always, a trivia question so you can show off what you know.

Biodefense Alumna, Faculty Member Named to PLOS Global Public Health Editorial Board

Biodefense faculty (and alum) Dr. Saskia Popescu is now a member of the  PLOS Global Public Health Editorial Board.  PLOS Global Public Health is an open access global forum for public health research that reaches across disciplines and regional boundaries to address the biggest health challenges and inequities facing our society today. ­­PLOS Global Public Health addresses deeply entrenched global inequities in public health and makes impactful research visible and accessible to health professionals, policy-makers, and local communities without barriers. The journal amplifies the voices of underrepresented and historically excluded communities and prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels – editors, editorial boards, peer reviewers and authors – to broaden the range and diversity of perspectives at the forefront of public health and advance the health of all humankind. 

Dr. Jean Kaseya Becomes Head of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Jean Kaseya, a Congolese physician with more than twenty years of experience working in public health both in the DRC government and in international institutions, has become the first Director General of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Kaseya’s candidacy was approved by the African Union this past weekend, and he joins the agency amid a transition designed to allow it to operate with more authority and flexibility. Whereas his predecessors were directors of the Africa CDC (which functioned as a technical institute), Kaseya is director general of Africa CDC that functions now as a public health agency, which will grant him more powers and less expectations of dealing with African Union bureaucratic issues.

Kaseya has indicated one of his main priorities is healing the relationship between Africa CDC and the WHO. Health Policy Watch noted “Today, after the confirmation, my first call was with Dr [Mashidiso] Moeti, Regional Director, WHO/AFRO region to reiterate my commitment to work closely with WHO to address health issues in Africa,” he stated, putting aside the rift that opened between the Africa CDC and WHO last summer over the degree of autonomy that Africa CDC should have in declaring regional public health emergencies.”

While Africa CDC grew its prominence through its COVID-19 response, Kaseya now must manage maintaining that level of prominence as the AU shifts to managing other challenges. The same Health Policy Watch article continues with “But COVID-19 is no longer the priority that it used to be, Guzman noted.  Instead, many countries are now preoccupied with a burgeoning fiscal and debt crisis, as well as multiple other competing priorities.  These include accelerating the African Continental Free Trade Area, the main agenda item at the 36th AU Assembly, as well as confronting the growing effects of climate change and the war in Ukraine on food security, and beyond. “

South Sudan Assents to Accession to Biological Weapons Convention

On February 15, the United States notified the BWC Implementation Support Unit that South Sudan deposited its instrument of accession to the Biological Weapons Convention in Washington DC. This makes South Sudan the 185th State Party to the Biological Weapons Convention. South Sudan joins the majority of other countries as a State Party, including Namibia, which acceded to the BWC less than a year ago on February 25, 2022. Learn more about the Convention and the ISU’s work here.

“How the James Webb Space Telescope Can Inform Health Security”

Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser recently published this article in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. He writes in part, “In a moment when life on Earth has felt increasingly tragic and troubling based on what has become the background noise of the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, dangerous climate change impacts, and other international affairs challenges, NASA and its partners released images of the early universe from a historical space telescope. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December, 2021 was the result of decades of innovation and challenges, but the images just beginning to be released are awe-inspiring. Not since the release of ‘Earthrise’ from the Apollo 8 mission has images from space highlighted how Earth is both grand and delicate. Against the vastness of the universe, the fragile nature of the Earth is overshadowed by the endless possibilities that exist within the galaxies around us. The images from the Webb telescope are an inspiration for scientific progress and for the next generation of scientists who will lead us into the future. The story of the James Webb Space Telescope and its creators serves as an important and informative lesson for the future of global health security which is still reeling from the continued threat of COVID-19 and the newly emerging Monkeypox threat. The necessary advancements in global health security will be a formulation of great failures such as the overall COVID-19 response, the result of never-ending commitment to progress from practitioners and policy makers, an effort of global collaboration, and one of increasing complexity that requires a diversity of thought to find innovative solutions; all themes which line the story of the James Webb Telescope and serve as an analogy for the mission towards the next great frontier in global health security, one free of global catastrophic biological risks.”

“Biology Is Dangerously Outpacing Policy”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Rocco Casagrande recently published this opinion piece in The New York Times. In it they discuss concerns about dual-use research and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s recent recommendation to majorly overhaul government oversight such research. They explain the core problem this recommendation aims to address, writing “Historically, the United States has taken a reactive and haphazard approach to preventing lab accidents and the misuse of high-risk science. A patchwork of regulations, guidance and policies exists based on the specific pathogen being researched, the type of research being conducted and the source of funding. But some research doesn’t fall under any agency, leaving an oversight vacuum.”

They continue, explaining “This fragmented system has not kept pace with the evolving risk landscape. There are now more powerful tools for genetic engineering, and these tools are easier to use and more widely available than ever before. There are also more researchers interested in conducting research with engineered pathogens for scientific and medical purposes. According to the Global Biolabs Initiative, of which Dr. Koblentz is a co-director, there are more than 100 high and maximum containment labs around the world conducting high-risk research, with more planned. The United States has more such labs than any other country. Failure to update bio-risk-management policies is too great a concern.”

They later offer a proposal to create a government agency specifically tasked with managing this oversight: “The United States also needs to establish an independent government agency that has the authority and resources to regulate this research. This agency would serve a similar purpose as the National Transportation Safety Board or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and be dedicated to understanding the cause of accidents and mitigating risk anywhere in the United States. This would provide a central place for scientists to receive guidance about their work or to raise concerns. Such an agency could develop and promote policies so that all institutions doing this work would be held to the same standards.”

“Some researchers argue that these recommendations are too far-reaching and will inhibit science. But many of these measures would align the regulatory environment of the United States with those of its peers, such as Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany. Fears that more oversight will have a chilling effect on research are belied by the robust research programs found in each of these countries. Still, the implementation of these recommendations will require a careful balancing act: fostering innovation in the life sciences while minimizing the safety and security risks.”

“Blind Spots in Biodefense”

In this editorial for Science, Ann Linder and Dale Jamieson discuss the Biden administration’s National Biodefense Strategy and critical areas it fails to address. They write in part “In October, the Biden administration released its National Biodefense Strategy (NBS-22), the first update since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Although the document notes that one of the lessons of the pandemic is that threats originating anywhere are threats everywhere, it frames threats as largely external to the United States. NBS-22 focuses primarily on bioterrorism and laboratory accidents, neglecting threats posed by routine practices of animal use and production inside the United States. NBS-22 references zoonotic disease but assures readers that no new legal authorities or institutional innovations are needed. Although the US is not alone in failing to confront these risks, its failure to comprehensively address them echoes across the globe.”

“More zoonotic diseases originated in the United States than in any other country during the second half of the 20th century. In 2022, the US processed more than 10 billion livestock, the largest number ever recorded and an increase of 204 million over 2021. Risks occur across the supply chain, from facilities where animals are born to homes where they are consumed. The ongoing H5N1 avian influenza outbreak has left 58 million animals dead in backyard chicken coops and industrial farms. It has infected animals in one of the dozens of live poultry markets in New York City (elsewhere called “wet markets”). Of the many agencies that govern food animal production, the US Department of Agriculture is the most important, but even it has no authority to regulate on-farm animal production.”

“Interventions to Reduce Risk for Pathogen Spillover and Early Disease Spread to Prevent Outbreaks, Epidemics, and Pandemics”

This online report by Vora et al. was recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Abstract: “The pathogens that cause most emerging infectious diseases in humans originate in animals, particularly wildlife, and then spill over into humans. The accelerating frequency with which humans and domestic animals encounter wildlife because of activities such as land-use change, animal husbandry, and markets and trade in live wildlife has created growing opportunities for pathogen spillover. The risk of pathogen spillover and early disease spread among domestic animals and humans, however, can be reduced by stopping the clearing and degradation of tropical and subtropical forests, improving health and economic security of communities living in emerging infectious disease hotspots, enhancing biosecurity in animal husbandry, shutting down or strictly regulating wildlife markets and trade, and expanding pathogen surveillance. We summarize expert opinions on how to implement these goals to prevent outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.”

“Hundreds of Incidents of Lost Nuclear and Radioactive Material Logged in Latest CNS Trafficking Database”

From the Nuclear Threat Initiative: “The latest edition of the Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, produced by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) exclusively for NTI, documents 352 incidents of nuclear and radiological material outside of regulatory control between 2020-2021. The Global Incidents and Trafficking Database is the only publicly available account of incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials. It aims to give researchers and policymakers a comprehensive picture of the amount and types of incidents that occur, from which they can develop data-driven policy solutions. CNS has logged more than 1,500 global incidents since the database was launched in 2013, emphasizing that the security of nuclear and radioactive materials remains a persistent global safety and security concern.”

“The latest dataset, available as a downloadable spreadsheet, is published with an accompanying analytical report and interactive map to illustrate where incidents have taken place. Delays and disruptions in national reporting due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to the publication of a two-year aggregate report of 2020 and 2021 incidents. The dataset illustrates several alarming trends, including more incidents occurring because of failure of individuals to abide by appropriate procedures and attempts by right-wing extremist groups to acquire nuclear and other radioactive materials. Furthermore, the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the United States, even before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, has stymied progress on nuclear and other radioactive materials security issues on the international stage and the threat of radiological crime and terrorism remains high, particularly in unstable regions.”

“Disinformation in the Kremlin’s Toolkit of Influence: Training Guidance for Scoping the Threat to the Norms and Institutions of Weapons of Mass Destruction Nonproliferation”

The Center for the Study of Democracy recently published this report: “Russia’s hybrid warfare operations utilize a combination of tactics and tools. Disinformation – the deliberate spread of inaccurate, incomplete, or fabricated information – remains one of the core instruments through which the Krem­lin seeks to assert its political authority domestically and exercise influence abroad. During the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Russia has stepped up its disinformation campaigns focusing in particular on technically specific and malign narratives around chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons – collectively referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This training guidance focuses on hybrid threats that involve the use of materials associated with the development of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. It seeks to illustrate 1) how the use of WMD materials fits within the Kremlin’s toolbox of influence and 2) how disinformation activities regarding WMD-enabled attacks can impact the existing WMD nonproliferation norms and institutions. The guidance contains indicative scenarios which are intended to facilitate consideration of the possible manifestations of disinformation activities and the types of approaches and strategies that can be implemented to counter foreign malign activities in the media sector.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

This Podcast Will Kill You, Special Episode: David Quammen & Breathless

Latest episode of TPWKY: “What do you get when you combine a love of reading with an interest in biology/public health/medical history and a background in podcasting? The TPWKY book club, of course! This season’s miniseries of bonus episodes features interviews with authors of popular science books, covering topics ranging from why sweat matters to the history of food safety, from the menstrual cycle to the persistence of race science and so much more. So dust off that library card, crack open that e-reader, fire up those earbuds, do whatever it takes to get yourself ready for the nerdiest book club yet.”

“We’re starting off this book club strong with a discussion of Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, the latest book by award-winning science writer David Quammen (@DavidQuammen). Breathless recounts the fascinating – and sometimes frightening – story of how scientists sought to uncover the secrets of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. In this interview, Quammen, whose 2012 book Spillover explores the increasing pathogen exchange occurring among humans, wildlife, and domestic animals, shares with us how he decided to write Breathless and why this story of discovery needs to be told. Our conversation takes us into musings over why we saw this pandemic coming yet could not keep it from happening, the controversy over the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the question of whether future pandemics are preventable or inevitable. Through this discussion, we find that the global response to future pandemics depends just as much on locating the gaps in our knowledge about this virus as it does on applying what we have learned so far. Tune in for all this and more.”

Osterholm Update: COVID-19 Episode 125-Masks, Memories, & Middle Ground

“In “Masks, Memories, & Middle Ground,” Dr. Osterholm and Chris Dall discuss the state of the pandemic in the US and around the world, the newly released CIDRAP Coronavirus Vaccine R&D Roadmap, and the rise of vaccine misinformation and disinformation.” Find this episode on CIDRAP’s website.

Personal Protective Equipment and Personal Protective Technology Product Standardization for a Resilient Public Health Supply Chain

“The National Academies will convene a public workshop, March 1-2, to examine standards gaps related to personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal protective technology (PPT). The event will explore innovative approaches and technologies needed to update and streamline the U.S. standardization system for PPE and PPT in support of supply chain resiliency. Policymakers, manufacturers, users, and relevant technical contributors will discuss ways to improve the effectiveness, safety, supply stability, and accessibility of PPE and PPT in health care settings and increase usage by critical infrastructure workers and the general public.” Learn more and register here.

The Biden Administration’s New Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism 

From the Nuclear Threat Initiative: “Join us as White House Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall and other senior U.S. officials discuss the Biden administration’s new strategy to counter weapons of mass destruction terrorism and advance nuclear and radiological security.” This event will be held on March 2 at 11 am EST. Register here.

Report Launch Preparing for Success at the Fifth Review Conference of the CWC: A Guide to the Issues

“The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) is pleased to invite you to the in-person launch of a new report on Preparing for Success at the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention: A Guide to the Issues. This is the first in a series of events the Institute is hosting in preparation for the Fifth CWC Review Conference, which is scheduled to take place from 15 to 19 May 2023.” One version will be hosted in The Hague on Monday, March 6 from 12:30-14:30 CET and another in Brussels on Tuesday, March 7 from 12:30-14:30 CET. Both will also be broadcast via Zoom.

CDC Launches Antimicrobial Resistance Investment Map

From CDC: “Antimicrobial resistance (AR), when germs do not respond to the drugs designed to kill them, threatens to return us to the time when simple infections were often fatal. CDC is committed to protecting people and the future of the healthcare, veterinary, and agriculture industries from the threat of antimicrobial resistance.

The AR Investment Map showcases CDC’s critical activities in the U.S. and abroad to combat antimicrobial resistance with investments in laboratory and epidemiological expertise and public health innovation. CDC supports most of these activities through its AR Solutions Initiative, while also leveraging investments from successful programs across the agency for maximum efficiency.

The map also includes projects related to combating antimicrobial resistance that are funded by supplemental appropriations provided to CDC to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the American Rescue Plan Act or the CARES Act. These activities are also highlighted in a fact sheet.

Go To CDC’s Antimicrobial Resistance Website

Sustainable Diagnostic Containment Laboratories – Request for Expressions of Interest

“This Expression of Interest (RFEI) is seeking bold ideas that will reinvent the diagnostic laboratory, making it fit-for-purpose in resource-limited contexts globally. These innovative solutions are expected to reimagine the physical laboratory in order to reduce ongoing operational and maintenance costs and allow sustainable presence of safe and secure handling of high-consequence pathogenic materials, whilst maintaining and/or optimizing core functions of a diagnostic laboratory in low- and middle- income countries.”

“This RFEI represents Phase I of a dual-phase approach to development of a Grand Challenge for Sustainable Diagnostic Laboratories. The pool of Expressions of Interest received will be used to inform the scope of a full Grand Challenge program in Phase II, under which Grand Challenges Canada will award funding. Submission of an Expression of Interest does not constitute an application for funding; however, Expressions of Interest will receive feedback from an external review process designed to improve the quality of full proposals submitted for an open call for funding applications in Phase II. Most promising Expressions of Interest may also be shortlisted for direct invitations to submit full proposals for funding in Phase II.”

Learn more and register 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 will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is: What is the first multilateral disarmament treaty that banned an entire category of WMD?

The correct answer to last week’s question, “This viral disease is primarily spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and was first detected in humans through a serological survey conducted in Uganda in 1952. What is its name?,” is Zika.

Pandora Report: 2.17.2023

Happy Friday! This week we are tackling reporting on the WHO’s investigation into COVID-19’s origin, estimates that counter China’s official COVID-19 death count, new insight into the death of Pablo Neruda, and more. New publications listed in this issue include Rolf Ekéus’ book discussing his time leading UNSCOM and a recent CBWNet working paper authored by Ralf Trapp. New professional opportunities are also included in this week’s announcement section alongside our weekly trivia question.

Biodefense Alumnus Named 2023 Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow

Matthew Ferreira (Biodefense MS ’22) was recently selected as a 2023 Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) fellow by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. Ferreira joins a class of 31 fellows selected from a pool of more than 227 applicants. He told the Schar School, “I am so excited to be accepted into the ELBI Fellowship program…I am looking forward to meeting and connecting with the others in the Fellowship class as well as alumni of the program. Many of the professionals and scholars that I have had the pleasure to work with have participated in ELBI, so I’m honored to have the chance to meet and learn from this cohort of diverse and talented people in the coming year.”

Read more about Ferreira and his time in the Biodefense Graduate Program here.

Confusion Over Nature WHO COVID-19 Investigation Reporting

This week, Nature published a news article indicating the WHO had abandoned the planned second phase of its investigation into the origin of COVID-19. In it, Smriti Mallapaty began by writing “The World Health Organization (WHO) has quietly shelved the second phase of its much-anticipated scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing ongoing challenges over attempts to conduct crucial studies in China, Nature has learned. Researchers say they are disappointed that the investigation isn’t going ahead, because understanding how the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 first infected people is important for preventing future outbreaks. But without access to China, there is little that the WHO can do to advance the studies, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. “Their hands are really tied.”

Naturally, this caused quite the ruckus. However, the WHO was quick to pushback and clarify that it has no plans to abandon this investigation. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove released a statement denying the claims. In Nature‘s reporting, Van Kerkhove is quoted saying “There is no phase two,” to the investigation and that “the plan has changed,” as “The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins.” However, on Wednesday, she clarified-“I think we need to be perfectly clear that WHO has not abandoned studying the origins of Covid 19. We have not, and we will not.” As Health Policy Watch explains, she elaborated with “In a sense, phase two became the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of novel pathogens (SAGO),” she clarified. SAGO held its first meeting in November 2021 and was established as a permanent advisory group to work on drawing up a framework to understand the origins of not just COVID-19 but any future outbreaks. “So the creation of SAGO was in effect, our best effort to move this work forward.”

On issues with the PRC’s cooperation (or lack thereof), she added “Studies that were recommended from the March 2021-WHO report, from the June 2022-SAGO report and studies that we’ve been recommending at the animal human interface and markets, on farms need to be conducted in China. We need cooperation from our colleagues there to advance our understanding…”

The WHO is not the only one investigating COVID-19’s origin either, with House Republicans launching their investigation into whether the pandemic began with an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. AP reports “The Republican chairmen of the House Oversight Committee and the Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic are seeking information, including from Dr. Anthony Fauci, concerning the idea that the coronavirus leaked accidentally from a Chinese lab.”

China-From CRISPR to COVID

China’s Post-Zero-COVID Wave

As China rolled back its Zero-COVID policies in early December, estimates and concerns about the deadly wave of infections the country faced abounded. This was particularly true as the new year travel season approached, as millions were set to travel from urban centers to their hometowns in rural areas across the country. Soon, reports of overflowing crematoriums and funeral parlors, sold out coffin makers, and sweeping infections coincided with continuously relaxing COVID-19 control policies. However, as of February 9, China has reported just 83,150 COVID-19 deaths, and leaders just declared a “decisive victory” against the virus. Of course, this is a number particularly difficult to believe in a country that has struggled so much with acquiring and delivering effective vaccines, relying instead on harsh lockdown and testing requirements.

As the New York Times explains, “The question of how many people died has enormous political relevance for the ruling Communist Party. Early in the pandemic, China’s harsh lockdowns largely kept the coronavirus at bay. Xi Jinping, the top leader, has portrayed that earlier success as evidence of China’s superiority over the West, a claim that would be hard to maintain with a high death toll.”

“The differences between China’s figures and researchers’ estimates are dramatic. The official numbers would give China the lowest death rate per capita of any major country over the entirety of the pandemic. But at the estimated levels of mortality, China would already have surpassed official rates of death in many Asian countries that never clamped down as long or as aggressively.”

So what gives? As we have discussed in the posts linked above, China is using much more narrow definitions of COVID-19 deaths, counting only those who died from respiratory failure and excluding those who died of liver, kidney, and even cardiac failure. Worse, the government quit counting COVID-19 deaths that occurred outside of hospitals which, coupled with the sudden absence of required testing and reporting, certainly had a major contribution to these suspicious numbers.

This piece from the New York Times discusses the numbers below and how experts at different institutions calculated them, including factors like China’s less effective vaccines, elderly populations, and more.

Source: The New York Times

The He Jiankui Saga Continues

Biodefense Graduate Program Associate Professor Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently hosted an event along with her colleagues, titled “Looking Back into the Future: CRISPR and Social Values-BioGovernance Common’s Open Discussion with Chinese Academics.” Among other things, they highlight in their event summary that “We’ve exposed that there is little substance behind the ambitious Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) gene therapy that Dr. Jiankui He, the scientist behind the illegal heritable human genome editing, has been boasting about to global patients. We were concerned that he might endanger another vulnerable population if his new venture remains unchecked,” and “Our event nudged Chinese media to publicly challenge Dr. He for the first time on his DMD research. As a result Dr. He has announced that he will prioritise research rather than social media promotion.”

Nature also covered the event, highlighting He’s refusal to discuss his past work and potential challenges this will create in understanding other important ethical issues. The article explains “On Saturday, He spoke at a virtual and in-person bioethics event that was promoted as “the first time that Dr. He has agreed to interact with Chinese bioethicists and other CRISPR scientists in a public event”. But during the talk, He did not discuss his past work and refused to answer questions from the audience, responding instead that questions should be sent to him by email.”

It continues later with “Some researchers worry that interest in He Jiankui is diverting attention away from more important ethical issues around heritable genome editing. “This event puts the spotlight on He Jiankui — Will he apologize? Is he displaying remorse?,” says Marcy Darnovsky, a public interest advocate on the social implications of human biotechnology at the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, California. Instead, she thinks researchers should focus on discussing whether there is a medical justification for heritable genome editing.”

He, who was recently released from prison and is now working in Beijing, garnered sharp criticism in 2018 when he announced that a woman had given birth after He implanted into her uterus two embryos he had used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the CCR5 gene to make them resistant to HIV infection. It was later revealed that a second woman carried a third child whose genome He edited.

Was Pablo Neruda Murdered by a Physician Acting on Behalf of General Pinochet?

In late September 1973, the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda died in a clinic in Santiago, having checked out of a hospital earlier that day. The Nobel laureate was hospitalized with prostate cancer earlier that month, just as the coup d’état led by US-backed Augusto Pinochet ousted Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende. Neruda, a member of Chile’s Communist Party and close advisor to President Allende, checked out of the hospital after he claimed a physician injected him with an unknown substance. He reportedly died that evening of heart failure. In the decades since, his family and many members of the public have insisted he was murdered on the orders of Pinochet. This was spurred by reports from Manuel Araya, Neruda’s driver, that he witnessed Neruda tell his wife he believed the physician was ordered by Pinochet to kill him and the belief that Neruda was flying to Mexico to counter Pinochet in exile.

In 2013, a Chilean court ordered the launch of an investigation into Neruda’s death in light of these allegations and concerns. Neruda’s body was exhumed that same year, allowing scientists to test samples to better understand the poet’s death. This Wednesday, following a ten-year investigation by scientists in Chile, Canada, and Denmark, Chilean Judge Paola Plaza received the findings of an international report on the matter. The report indicates Pablo Neruda may have been killed by botulinum toxin-producing bacteria. The New York Times reports “The scientists found in Mr. Neruda’s body a potentially toxic type of bacteria that would not naturally occur there, and confirmed that it was in his system when he died, according to a two-page summary of the report shared with The New York Times. But they could not distinguish whether it was a toxic strain, and they could not conclude whether he was injected with the bacteria or if, instead, it came from contaminated food.”

The same article continues, “Yet the scientists conceded that other circumstantial evidence supported the theory of murder, including that in 1981, the military dictatorship poisoned political prisoners with bacteria possibly similar to the strain found in Mr. Neruda. (However, that method of poisoning stemmed from a chemical-weapons program the dictatorship began in 1976, three years after Mr. Neruda’s death.)”

While definitive answers remain out of reach in this case, Neruda’s is not the only contested death from this period. As the same article also explains “Yet Wednesday’s report and Ms. Plaza’s eventual conclusion may never sway some of the Chilean public. Karen Donoso, a Chilean historian, compared the uncertainty over Mr. Neruda’s death to some people’s lasting questions over the death of the leftist President Salvador Allende, who shot himself rather than fall into the hands of the military as it overthrew his government.”

“World’s Largest Collection of Viruses: Inside the Massive Biodefense Lab in Houston Area”

Houston’s ABC13 recently got an insider’s look at Galveston National Laboratory, located at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Their reporting offers an overview of the work that goes on at the facility, including in the BSL-4 area. As the station explains, “The Galveston National Laboratory is one of 14 U.S. facilities with BSL4 labs built by the National Institutes of Health in the years following the 2001 Anthrax attacks as a network of biodefense laboratories to “study viruses of pandemic potential and to develop medical countermeasures…The team is proud that in its 15 years, there has never been a “major laboratory incident resulting in the transmission of a disease” at the facility. This may be why most of us know little to nothing about their work.”

You can learn about the other 13 BSL-4 labs in the US and more around the world at

“Chemical and Microbiological Forensics in Investigations of Alleged Uses of Chemical and Biological Weapons – A Preliminary Analysis”

New from CBWNet: “In the latest CBWNet working paper, Ralf Trapp discusses the mechanisms for investigating the use of chemical and biological weapons and the development of scientific capacity for such investigations. The author highlights the importance of investigations in determining if a chemical or biological weapon was used, the type of agent used, and the origin of the weapon. The OPCW and the UN Secretary General’s Mechanism have set up systems with designated laboratories to investigate such allegations. However, there are still significant scientific challenges to be addressed, including validation of methods, agreed acceptance criteria, and distinguishing between natural and deliberate events. The paper emphasizes the need for continued investment and attention from governments to make progress in this field.”

“A Notorious Syria Conspiracy Theory is Definitively Debunked”

Brian Whitaker tackles the OPCW IIT’s newest report on the Assad regime’s use of CW in Douma and its debunking of disinformation surrounding the attack in this piece for New Lines Magazine. He writes in part, “The essence of the disinformation campaign was a refusal by its purveyors to accept that the Bashar al-Assad regime was conducting chemical warfare in Syria. Instead, they claimed all such attacks were “staged” by rebels to frame the regime and trigger a Western intervention. There was never any evidence for this, but it became the deniers’ standard response to reports of chemical attacks. The main reason the Douma attack in particular became a cause celebre for the deniers is it was one of only two chemical attacks (out of a total of over 300) that did in fact result in punitive airstrikes by Western powers. In addition, for the deniers, the emergence of two dissenters from within the OPCW and a series of leaked documents kept the issue alive longer than might otherwise have been expected. Meanwhile, Russia’s attempts to shield its Syrian ally led to political divisions in the OPCW, which threatened to undermine the global prohibition against chemical weapons.”

Iraq Disarmed: The Story Behind the Story of the Fall of Saddam

Rolf Ekéus, Chair of the UN Special Commission on Iraq from 1991-97, recently published his book covering his tenure and the organization’s struggles in disarming Iraq of its WMDs-Iraq Disarmed:

“The quest to disarm Iraq took place between two wars—one justified and right, the other a dreadful mistake, a violation of international law that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.”  With these unvarnished words, Rolf Ekéus begins his political-thrilleresque story of the disarmament of Iraq—and the machinations that ultimately led to the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of ISIS.”

“After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the war that followed, the UN Security Council ruled that Iraq must rid itself of all weapons of mass destruction. The difficult, politically sensitive, and dangerous task of accomplishing this rested with the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), led by Ekéus, one of Sweden’s most seasoned diplomats. This was a radical experiment in UN governance—essentially conveying to one individual the power to conduct a disarmament program, with oversight only by the Security Council.”

“What followed were a succession of tense conversations with the Iraqi leadership, often-dangerous inspections, complex destruction processes, negotiations with Security Council representatives, and diplomatic maneuvering by world leaders. The recounting of these events lies at the heart of Ekéus’s personal narrative of disarmament history in the making, a narrative that adds substantially to the evidence that UNSCOM’s mission was successful and the 2003 war clearly illegal.”

“Crafted not in the interests of a political agenda, but rather for the sake of historical accuracy, Iraq Disarmed serves today as a sobering cautionary tale.”

“Private-Sector Research Could Pose a Pandemic Risk. Here’s What To Do About It”

Dr. Gerald Epstein, Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Defense University, recently published this piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In it he discusses biosecurity issues in the private sector, using the 2018 synthesis of horsepox in a Canadian academic lab and Larry Wayne Harris’ attempt to order freeze-dried Y. pestis as touch points. He writes in his conclusion, “With the growth of the bioeconomy and increasing amounts of privately funded life sciences research, restricting biosecurity policy only to government-funded institutions creates an ever-growing gap. Even though research with enhanced potential pandemic pathogens constitutes an extremely small fraction of the overall life science and biotechnology enterprise—and the fraction of that work done with private funding even smaller—the potential global consequences of such work make it increasingly important to develop governance approaches that go beyond attaching strings to US government dollars. Closing this gap within the United States is not sufficient, given the global extent of the life science enterprise and the global consequences of any lab-caused pandemic—but it is a necessary start.”

Strategic Trade Review, Winter/Spring 2023

The 10th issue of the Strategic Trade Review covers a number of timely topics. Dr. Andrea Viski, Schar School Adjunct Professor and editor for the Review, writes in here introduction “The role of the Strategic Trade Review is to empower readers from all stakeholder communities with the powerful tool of rigorous and consummate scholarship from some of the top experts in the world on this and other questions. From discovering the ways that North Korean nuclear researchers acquire sensitive technology through international collaborations to how companies implement R&D compliance, this 10th issue of STR holds a mirror to today’s most important trade and security concerns.”

“MCMi Program Update”

“This newly released annual report provides an update on the US Food and Drug Administration’s work to support medical countermeasure-related public health preparedness and response efforts:

FDA plays a critical role in protecting the United States from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and emerging infectious disease threats. FDA ensures that medical countermeasures (MCMs)—including drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests—to counter these threats are safe, effective, and secure. FDA works closely with interagency partners through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE, or Enterprise) to build and sustain the MCM programs necessary to effectively respond to public health emergencies. FDA also works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to facilitate the development and availability of MCMs to support the unique needs of American military personnel. The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013 (PAHPRA), requires FDA to issue an annual report detailing its medical countermeasure activities. This report responds to that requirement for the latest fiscal year available.”

Personal Protective Equipment and Personal Protective Technology Product Standardization for a Resilient Public Health Supply Chain

“The National Academies will convene a public workshop, March 1-2, to examine standards gaps related to personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal protective technology (PPT). The event will explore innovative approaches and technologies needed to update and streamline the U.S. standardization system for PPE and PPT in support of supply chain resiliency. Policymakers, manufacturers, users, and relevant technical contributors will discuss ways to improve the effectiveness, safety, supply stability, and accessibility of PPE and PPT in health care settings and increase usage by critical infrastructure workers and the general public.” Learn more and register here.

Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense 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.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

Call for Applications: Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons (2023 – 2024)

From the Council on Strategic Risks: “In a time of rising geopolitical tensions and the continued emergence of biological events, the devastation that biological threats can cause is clearer than ever. Whether biological threats arise naturally, by accident, or through a deliberate effort to weaponize infectious diseases, they pose grave risks to international security and stability, and significantly impact the welfare and health of people around the globe. The urgency for mitigating this area of catastrophic risks is further driven home by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and concerns that its leaders might consider using weapons of mass destruction in conflict, which includes biological weapons, and continued misinformation and disinformation related to biological weapons threats.”

“The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is continuing to develop and cultivate creative solutions to help address biological threats, including a particular focus on reducing risks of the deliberate weaponization of infectious diseases. As part of this work, CSR is announcing a call for applications for the 2023–2024 class of our Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons. Applications are due by 5pm Eastern Daylight Savings Time on March 24, 2023. Four to six Fellows will be selected.” Learn more and apply here.

IFBA Launches New Professional Certification in Cyberbiosecurity

From the International Federation of Biosafety Associations: “The IFBA is pleased to announce the launch of their new Professional Certification in Cyberbiosecurity which identifies individuals with demonstrated competencies in the mitigation of cybersecurity risks within biological laboratories. This includes Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) risks in order to protect sensitive biological research, data, databases, and laboratory facilities and equipment against illicit or unauthorized access, theft, tampering, or other forms of misuse.” Read 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 will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is: This viral disease is primarily spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and was first detected in humans through a serological survey conducted in Uganda in 1952. What is its name?

Shout out to Scott H. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “This disease, named for a Brazilian physician, is caused by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, and is commonly spread by kissing bugs. What is it?” is Chagas disease.