Pandora Report: 5.13.2022

Happy Top Gun Day to all those that feel the need for speed! Continuing the theme of “things you thought you left in the Cold War,” we’re covering news from Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow in this edition. This week we discuss the official emergence of COVID-19 in North Korea, China’s new 14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Bioeconomy, and a WHO European Region proposal to condemn Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and even shutter the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of NCDs in Moscow. The new Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group and updates on avian influenza in the United States are also discussed. We have included a number of great new publications, including a report from the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense discussing the resources land-grant universities can offer US biodefense and the WHO’s first global report on infection prevention and control. Upcoming events, including one offered by Issues in Science and Technology featuring Biodefense Graduate Program alumnus Dr. Yong-Bee Lim as a panelist, are included. Finally, check out the announcements section for a special One Health funding opportunity and more new works combatting Russian WMD disinformation.

“Maximum National Emergency” in the Impossible State- First COVID-19 Outbreak Announced in Pyongyang

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) announced via the Korean Central News Agency that it is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak this week with multiple people testing positive for the BA.2 subvariant in Pyongyang. At least 187,000 were quarantined due to a “fever” of unknown origin and Kim Jong-un declared a “maximum national emergency” in response. According to the New York Times, “North Korea said 350,000 people had been found to have a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday. It added that 162,200 people had completely recovered.” Six are reported dead (one specifically from Omicron) and Kim has ordered all cities and counties in the country of 25 million to lock down. This is the first admission to having any cases from the regime and, in typical fashion, Kim took the opportunity to admonish his health officials, claiming that the outbreak in the capital “shows there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.” As of late February this year, the DPRK had reported 54,187 COVID-19 tests to the WHO since the pandemic began, all of which it claimed were negative.

The announcement was made the same week the South inaugurated its new president, Yoon Suk-yeol on May 10. Yoon is a conservative who brings a harsher stance on the North than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, which many think will heighten tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons. While major political events in the South often bring provocations from the North, including nuclear tests, some wonder if this new revelation might temper this tendency. However, former UK Ambassador to the DPRK, John Everard, believes this is unlikely to stop the North’s weapons testing for now. However, it may impact Kim’s promise to rapidly expand his nuclear arsenal, according to some analysts, a promise which he made at last month’s military parade featuring new ICBMs.

Irrespective of what happens in terms of nuclear testing, the public health situation is critical in the DPRK. Like China, it has implemented a Zero COVID-19 policy, which includes lockdowns at the border and strict quarantines. However, it has not yet started a COVID-19 vaccination campaign, making it the only other country to have not done so apart form Eritrea. This is despite multiple offers and refused deliveries from COVAX, including an offer that would have covered 20% of the population. As of February this year, COVAX had just 1.29 million doses allocated to North Korea, a number many organizations are calling for increases in amid the outbreak. The country previously expressed concerns about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine COVAX had allocated for the country (citing concerns about rare blood clotting following vaccination), though it also rejected over 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac in September of last year, saying they should be sent to severely impacted countries. The DPRK also rejected multiple offers from South Korea and Russia to provide vaccines to the country in 2021. As a result, this is an unvaccinated population in a country plagued by malnutrition and other health crises facing a highly transmissible and contagious subvariant, all while lockdowns make accessing what healthcare is available difficult if not impossible.

Korea experts at CSIS think that the North is probably interested in receiving vaccines, though they specifically want mRNA ones. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is, like Johnson and Johnson’s offering, a viral vector vaccine. Sinovac’s CoronaVac is an inactivated vaccine found to be less effective than mRNA vaccines, like those offered by Pfizer and Moderna. Remember, the PRC has not produced nor authorized any mRNA vaccines, despite its initial claims that it had one domestic mRNA vaccine offering at its reach. The PRC does have some mRNA candidates in phase three clinical trials and review and approval processes, including the vaccine developed by Abogen Biosciences, Walvax Biotechnology, and the PLA Academy of Military Science that is currently in extensive trials in China, Mexico, and Indonesia. However, as China struggles with case counts in places like Shanghai, this is unlikely to be of much help to the DPRK any time soon.

The North has likely been concerned about the monitoring requirements that come with accepting COVAX shipments, which might be mitigated by reframing this as technical support while highlighting the differences between vaccines and other fungible forms of aid. De-linking COVID-19 aid from progress on other strategic goals is another potentially useful tool if the North remains committed to its current approach. Again, however, this is an incredibly serious situation, so the DPRK may be more open to less desirable terms than it normally would be.

Furthermore, the Zero COVID approach has contributed to secondary health and food crises as supplies of medication and access to care evaporate and the food shortage drags on. In fact, “The Great Year of Victory 2021”, the most recent version of the annual, near-two-hours-long documentary praising Kim and recapping the regime’s achievements for that year, even admitted there is a food crisis. According to the Washington Post, “The narrator described a meeting where Kim expressed his concern that “what is urgently needed in stabilizing the people’s livelihood is to relieve the tension created by the food supply,” and he called on emergency measures for the “food crisis,” noting that the country had dipped into its emergency grain supply. In June, Kim called the country’s food situation “tense.”” Border closures blocked shipments of grains, fertilizers, and farming equipment, adding to the pain of a population wherein the UN estimates at least 43% are food insecure. This was all even further exacerbated by severe flooding followed by 2020’s typhoons, contributing to continued low crop yields. Kim Jong-un even remarked at a 2021 Worker’s Party meeting that the “people’s food situation is now getting tense.” Finally, an October 2021 report from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service revealed that Kim ordered an all-out farming campaign, calling for all citizens to “devote every effort to farming, and to secure “every grain” of rice.”

China has indicated it is “ready to go all out” in its support for the DPRK during the outbreak. Zhao Lijian, Deputy Director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency this week, “China and the DPRK are friendly neighbors linked by mountains and rivers. The two sides enjoy the fine tradition of mutual assistance. Since the onset of COVID-19, the DPRK side has been firmly supporting China in the fight against the coronavirus. China very much appreciates that. We feel deeply for anti-COVID situation in the DPRK. As the DPRK’s comrade, neighbor and friend, China is ready to go all out to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the virus.”

However, this aid is likely to be slow moving, with the PRC and DPRK having re-suspended overland trade last month. The suspension was previously lifted in January 2022 after the border was closed in 2020 to prevent COVID-19 from spreading into the country. This lack of movement impacted what aid was sent, with a 2020 UNICEF aid bundle sent to North Korea in 2020 sitting idle at a quarantine facility in China until January of this year. Furthermore, trade between the countries dropped over 90% between March 2020 and March 2021, with the DPRK economy contracting 4.5% in 2020, the steepest decline for the country since it endured the massive North Korean Famine of the 1990s. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced too this week that the ROK is willing to provide medical assistance and other help North Korea during this crisis.

In February 2021 the CSIS Korea Chair’s podcast, The Impossible State, covered what was then known about lockdowns and the severity of COVID-19 in the North. This is a great source for context on this situation and, in it, Dr. Victor Cha (Senior Vice and Korea Chair at CSIS,  D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies at Georgetown University, and former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council), Dr. Kee Park (Lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School), and Dr. J. Stephen Morrison (Senior Vice President and Director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS) discussed issues like a lack of ventilators in the country and, perhaps most interestingly, greater government control of private markets.

These markets gained momentum during the days of the great famine in the 1990s when the regime’s public distribution system failed. According to some estimates pre-pandemic, up to 72% of North Koreans get all of their daily resources from these markets, not from the government. These are also avenues for media from the rest of the world to enter the country, however they also offer the regime and easy resource for hard currency. This was seen in 2009 when the regime redenominated the won and placed restrictions on how much of the old currency could be converted, helping reconsolidate its power from the growing markets. In an effort to recentralize and recoup some of its losses in 2021, the government “..reclaimed control over all foreign trade and domestic markets.” “During the 8th Party Congress, North Korea announced its new five-year economic plan (2021–25). It stresses centralised management in all sectors and advocates greater political control in day-to-day economic planning and management,” according to East Asia Forum. While this indicates the regime feels threatened by the pandemic, it also means that food insecure people’s access to resources was further limited, which will be even worse now with the entire country in lockdown.

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan Gets Boost to Its Bioeconomy Focus

In March 2021, the PRC’s National People’s Congress passed the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan, covering 2021-2025. China’s five-year plans are collections of social and economic development initiatives that the Party issues to help guide policy making. They help the Party outline what each facet of government should be working towards by doing everything from outlining what Chinese communism looks like in a given era to launching comprehensive reforms. Drafted in October 2020, the 14th Five-Year Plan was written amid economic shrinkage (the first in four decades) and worsening US-China relations during the COVID-19 pandemic. It sets forth a strategy of the “domestic and overseas markets reinforcing each other, with the domestic market as the mainstay,” focusing heavily on the economy, environment, energy, transportation, research and development, and urbanization.

China Daily reported this week that the National Development and Reform Commission released a new document outlining a plan to “spur the bioeconomy during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25), in a bid to promote high-quality development of the sector,” called “The 14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Bioeconomy.” This is similar in nature to the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Informatization released in December 2021, which seeks to further the country’s digitization during the period covered by the 14th-Five Year Plan. The 29-page bioeconomy plan, available here (no English translation was available at the time of writing) outlines steps “to promote innovative development of the bioeconomy, accelerate the development of healthcare, bio-agriculture, bioenergy, biological environmental protection and bioinformatics, improve the biosecurity risk control, prevention and governance system, and create a better environment for the innovative development of the bioeconomy.”

It begins by explaining broad objectives and indicating it was crafted “according to the 14th Five-Year Plan of National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China and the Outline of Vision 2035.” It then continues to define goals across 28 sub-topics, ranging from development areas to calls for improved epidemic management and biosecurity. The document outlines a number of basic principles including “Adhere to the innovation-driven”, “Adhere to win-win cooperation”, and “Adhere to risk control.”

The promise of win-win cooperation is a key way China promotes its aid and infrastructure deals with other countries, contrasting its supposedly mutually beneficial offerings with those of the United States. In a statement before the UN in 2015, Xi Jinping took this even further, saying “Major countries should follow the principles of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in handling their relations. Big countries should treat small countries as equals, and take a right approach to justice and interests by putting justice before interests.” This echoes many claims and promises the PRC makes to differentiate itself from the United States on the global stage. In reality, the PRC is not really interested in win-win situations just as it is only interested in its core principle of non-interference when it is convenient. To achieve this “win-win approach”, the plan calls for, “a higher level of openness to the outside world and greater reform initiatives to gather global bio-innovation resources.” It also calls for China to “Actively participate in global biosafety governance, promote bilateral and multilateral international cooperation in life sciences and biotechnology, and promote the rational flow of innovation factors to achieve mutual benefit and win-win bio-economic benefits.”

Zhou Jian, Deputy Director of the Consumer Goods Industry Department at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said, “The ministry will work with relevant departments to implement moves to modernize the biomedicine sector, including building a modern innovative ecosystem deeply integrating the industrial, innovation, value and supply chains, shoring up weak chains, promoting intelligent and green development of the pharmaceutical industry, driving innovative transformation of large enterprises and supporting the development of small and medium-sized enterprises that specialize in niche sectors.”

According to China Daily, “Under the plan, the bioeconomy-a model focusing on protecting and using biological resources and deeply integrating medicine, healthcare, agriculture, forestry, energy, environmental protection, materials and other sectors-will become a key driving force to boost high-quality development by 2025.

By 2025, the proportion of the bioeconomy’s added value in GDP will increase steadily, and China is set to witness a significant increase in the number of enterprises engaged in the bioeconomy with annual revenues of at least 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) each. By 2035, China aims to be at the forefront globally in terms of the comprehensive strength of its bioeconomy.”

This is of concern, particularly given the strategy’s interest in things like precision medicine (which uses genomic, physiological and other data to tailor treatments to individuals), as US officials continue to warn of China’s interest in Americans’ health data – including DNA information. In 2020, as US states struggled to build their testing capacity, Chinese biotech firm BGI Group (formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute) offered at least six states help with building and managing COVID-19 testing labs. This would have given the company access to Americans’ health data, former Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina said during a January 2021 CBS 60 Minutes report. BGI was also scrutinized for its connection to the PLA as it gave pregnant patients’ genomic data from NIFTY prenatal tests to the Chinese military to conduct research on population traits. The Pentagon warned service members in 2019 not to take at-home DNA test kits, stating they create security risks and could impact service members’ careers, following similar concerns. China’s interest in competing in biopharmaceuticals and medical device manufacturing further indicate the country is in it for personal gain, not improving and saving lives- a dangerous prospect in a world threatened by high chronic disease burdens and threats of emerging infectious diseases.

Europe Pressuring the WHO to Isolate Russia

Many members of WHO’s European region are pushing the organization to remove experts at its office in Moscow. The 53-member region includes Ukraine, Russia and the entirety of the EU. It will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday to consider passing a resolution condemning Russia’s attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine, which could set into motion the removal of WHO experts in Moscow. Politico explains, “If agreed, the resolution would force the WHO’s hand on taking a more political stance on the war. The health organization has in the past been criticized for taking overtly apolitical positions, including for its caution at publicly calling out China in the early days of the pandemic.” The WHO did announce, however, this week that it has begun gathering evidence for a potential war crimes investigation into the more than 200 attacks it has documented by Russia on Ukrainian healthcare facilities on its Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care platform.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visiting Ukraine last week

The draft resolution is sharply worded and demands that the Russian Federation “ensure respect for international humanitarian law, including protection of all medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their means of transport and equipment, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities.” It also asks WHO Regional Director for Europe Hang Kluge “to safeguard the technical cooperation and assistance provided by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, including the possible relocation of the aforementioned office to an area outside of the Russian Federation.” It also asks Kluge to “consider temporarily suspending all regional meetings in the Russian Federation.” The suspension in the region would be in place until there is a peaceful resolution in Ukraine, according to Politico

However, some argue it will do very little in practice. Lawrence Gostin at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law called it a “weak rebuke that won’t bother Putin,” continuing on to say that the WHO could remove Russia’s voting rights at the World Health Assembly and that the assembly should pass a resolution condemning attacks on healthcare facilities. He also argued that the WHO should take make multiple steps regarding this at the World Health Assembly, including 1) suspending Russia’s WHA voting privileges, 2) passing resolutions condemning Russian attacks on healthcare and blocking humanitarian aid, 3) inviting Ukrainian doctors and human rights NGOs to speak at WHO, and 4) reforming surveillance system for attacks targeting healthcare facilities.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Health has been even less subtle about its view of the matter, tweeting “Due to #Russianinvasion, Ukraine insists on the closure of WHO’s European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, located in Moscow. We are talking about moving the office outside of russia. Ukraine has already submitted a request to the @WHO_Europe.”

Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group

The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group recently released this statement outlining directions for strengthening the G7’s desires to improve non-proliferation, regulate conventional weapons and ammunition, and secure the sustainable use of outer space. It begins by reiterating “the G7´s profound condemnation of Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of choice against Ukraine, enabled by the Belarusian government.” It covers topics like strengthening the NPT ahead of the 10th Review Conference in August 2022, support for the restoration and full implementation of the JCPOA, upholding the global norm against the development and use of biological weapons, honoring the 20th anniversary of the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, defending the norm against the use of chemical weapons and countering impunity, countering the proliferation of missiles and other critical technology, saving lives by preventing illicit transfers and destabilizing accumulation of conventional weapons and ammunition, and addressing state threats to the secure, safe, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space.

Bird Flu Updates- US States Confirm Cases in Wild Mammals

Building on last week’s update on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) cases in the US, H5N1 HPAI is now impacting more than 2/3 of US states, and multiple states in the Midwest have reported cases in fox kits. 37.55 million poultry in the US have died as a result of the virus’s spread. In Michigan, three fox kits have died in Macomb, St. Clair, and Lapeer counties, with the Michigan State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab finding them “non-negative” for HPAI. Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported on Wednesday that a wild fox had tested positive. Two kits were also confirmed to have died from H5N1 in Ontario, Canada earlier this month, with one displaying “severe neurologic signs before dying at a rehabilitation center, according to the DNR.” An estimated 1.7 million farmed birds in Canada have been killed by H5N1 this year. A turkey vulture in Dundas was recently found to be infected, indicating it is spreading even further in Canadian wild bird populations. Wild red foxes in the Netherlands tested positive in 2021 during outbreaks of avian influenza in multiple European countries as well. These cases in the US and Canada represent the first cases reported in wild mammals in North America.

“Testing in Minnesota has confirmed HPAI in nearly 200 wild birds, including 19 species of birds, primarily waterfowl and raptors,” said Michelle Carstensen, the Minnesota DNR’s wildlife health program supervisor. Washington state confirmed Thursday that it has seen six outbreaks in just one week, adding two to that count yesterday. “With so many suspicious cases in domestic flocks and wild birds pending investigation, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to avoid exposing your flock to wild waterfowl, shorebirds, and other domestic flocks,” Washington state veterinarian Dr. Amber Itle said. The CDC still says the risk of H5N1 to humans remains low, but it advises the public to avoid handling sick or dead birds, cautioning them to use a plastic bag or shovel to do so if necessary.

In related news, China recently detected the first human case of H3N8 in a young boy who had close contact with chickens and crows raised at his home. While a single case is not particularly concerning, increases in transmission in birds increases the opportunities for these viruses to mutate, potentially gaining the ability to spread easily from person-to-person eventually. The WHO said of the case, “Currently, limited available epidemiologic and virologic information suggests that this avian influenza A(H3N8) virus has not acquired the ability of sustained transmission among humans. Therefore, the risk at the national, regional and international level of disease spread is assessed as low.”

“Boots on the Ground: Land-Grant Universities in the Fight Against Threats to Food and Agriculture”

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense recently released this report discussing how universities receiving benefits through Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994 and Equity in Education Land-Grant Status Act funds offer unique resources to identifying and rectifying critical biodefense gaps. The Commission writes:

The food- and agro-biodefense challenge is different from, but as daunting as, biodefense of human public health due to the diversity of targets (e.g., livestock, crops, soil); spectrum of potential pathogens and pests; and different geographies, ecosystems, and infrastructures at risk. Land-grant universities are uniquely positioned to help defend the United States against biological threats to food, livestock, crops, wildlife, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, textiles, the environment, the bioeconomy, and the food and agro-economy, valued at more than $1 trillion annually. In serving the states, localities, tribes, and territories in which they reside, the land-grant universities have their boots on the ground in the fight against threats to food and agriculture.

The Commission makes a number of recommendations across the subjects of coordination, early warning, research and development, and preparedness, response, and mitigation. These include “Incorporate all land-grant universities in national food and
agro-biodefense activities,” “Expand the role of land-grant universities in international
surveillance and interdiction for food and agriculture defense,” “Establish land-grant university biodefense research coalitions,” and “Establish a cooperative extension preparedness and response framework that extends the capabilities of the Extension
Disaster Education Network,” among others.

Today, the US has 112 Land-Grant Colleges and Universities, ranging from Ivy League Cornell to major state agriculture universities like Kansas State and Texas A&M, both of which have strong backgrounds in biodefense work. “The original mission of these institutions, as set forth in the first Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education,” according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The Association also explains, “A key component of the land-grant system is the agricultural experiment station program created by the Hatch Act of 1887. The Hatch Act authorized direct payment of federal grant funds to each state to establish an agricultural experiment station in connection with the land-grant institution there. The amount of this appropriation varies from year to year and is determined for each state through a formula based on the number of small farmers there. A major portion of the federal funds must be matched by the state.”

Map depicting land-grant universities across the nation. Source: USDA

“Want to Prevent Pandemics? Stop Spillovers”

Vora et al. discuss how just $20 billion per year in investments could greatly reduce the likelihood of future spillovers in their recent Nature Comment. They write that, “Spillover events, in which a pathogen that originates in animals jumps into people, have probably triggered every viral pandemic that’s occurred since the start of the twentieth century.” They continue, explaining “What’s more, an August 2021 analysis of disease outbreaks over the past four centuries indicates that the yearly probability of pandemics could increase several-fold in the coming decades, largely because of human-induced environmental changes.” They identify four specific actions based on “decades of research from epidemiology, ecology and genetics,” including protecting tropical and subtropical forests, banning or strictly regulating (both domestically and internationally) “commercial markets and trade of live wild animals that pose a public-health risk,” improving biosecurity where dealing with farmed animals is concerned, and improving people’s health and economic security, particularly in “hotspots for the emergence of infectious diseases.” They go on to discuss other measures, like incorporating these actions into the WHA pandemic agreement currently under negotiation and improvements in preventative health care.

“Zero Draft Report of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies to the Seventy-Fifth World Health Assembly”

Speaking of the WHA, a working group tasked with finding ways to strengthen WHO’s preparedness and response to health emergencies just released this draft report for the Assembly. In their 56-page report, they provide insight and recommendations for boosting the implementation and compliance of parties to the International Health Regulations and a potential timeline for amending them. According to Devex, “To strengthen equity, the report says member states should establish and scale up national and regional manufacturing capacities for the development and delivery of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and other essential supplies during emergencies. It also asks them “to consider processes for transfer of technology and know-how, including to and among larger manufacturing hubs in each region.””

Much of the report’s proposals are not new, owing to the fact that the working group was tasked with reviewing existing recommendations for pandemic preparedness. Other recommendations, as Devex explains, include “…for the WHO Secretariat to consider a different acronym when referring to so-called public health emergencies of international concern, as the abbreviation “PHEIC” is sometimes pronounced like the word “fake” in English. The report also suggests that WHO publish information on disease outbreaks with pandemic potential “on an immediate basis” and that member states discuss the feasibility of developing an intermediate and/or regional alert systems for health emergencies.” It also recommends the 75th WHA adopts any amendments to the IHR that are ready, while also suggesting the director-general convenes a review committee to “make technical recommendations for proposed amendments submitted to the WHO Secretariat by June 30 of this year.” The group also recommends that the IHR review committee provides a report to the director-general by October. Meanwhile, a member state-led process should finalize their proposed amendments and then submit them to the director-general by January of 2023. If necessary, the report indicates this process can continue until the 76th World Health Assembly, expected to take place in May 2023.

The United States has already submitted proposals for IHR amendments for consideration by the 75th WHA. They are primarily focused on requiring states parties to provide early notification to WHO regarding any events that might become PHEICs. The WHO would also have a 24-hour window to work with states parties to verify reports and determine a disease’s potential to spread abroad. Another US-proposed amendment includes a provision on deliberations of the IHR emergency committee, specifying that if the group “is not unanimous in its findings, any member shall be entitled to express his or her dissenting professional views in an individual or group report, which shall state the reasons why a divergent opinion is held and shall form part of the Emergency Committee’s report.” The US has also proposed creation of a compliance committee for implementation of the IHR.

“The Department of Defense Contributions to Pandemic Response”

CSIS Global Health Policy Center’s Drs. Thomas Cullison and J. Stephen Morrison recently authored this report discussing the Department of Defense’s (DOD) future in the US government’s work on international health security. They write, “A process of strategic planning that encompasses a spectrum of valuable DOD contributions to contain the global Covid-19 pandemic should begin right away. DOD has broad capabilities that have consistently proven their high value in addressing the current Covid-19 pandemic and other historical disease outbreaks, in support of the U.S. civilian-led response. The knowledge and experience gained in crisis response at home and overseas contribute to military readiness and improved coordination of all actors involved in preventing, detecting, and responding to infectious disease events.”

They also provide four recommendations to strengthen DOD’s contributions overseas that advance US global health security interests:

  • Identify a lead federal agency for U.S. international Covid-19 response and future health security crises. DOD should have permanent, sustained involvement in integrating and planning from the beginning.  
  • More closely coordinate and synchronize DOD capabilities dealing with biological threats within DOD and with external partners. 
  • Align funding authorities with desired outcomes. 
  • Maintain military, medical, and scientific expertise. 

“Towards a Post-Pandemic World: Lessons from COVID-19 for Now and the Future”

The National Academies recently published this proceedings of a workshop summarizing discussions and findings from the Forum on Microbial Threats’ two virtual 2021 workshops. The first workshop focused on what it means to frame the response to COVID-19 through a “syndemic” approach, and what the implications would be for global recovery. The second workshop focused more broadly on key lessons and emerging data from ongoing pandemic response efforts that can be incorporated into current health systems to improve resilience and preparedness for future outbreaks.

This workshop explored the long-term effects of COVID-19 on health equity, including considerations for mental health and social determinants of health. It also addressed uncertainties during a pandemic, such as trust, communication, and engagement and explored approaches to systematize recovery efforts to improve the ongoing responses and prepare for the next pandemic. Experts discussed possibilities for a post-pandemic world and a response strategy for stakeholders that ensures sustained community partnerships and prioritization of health equity. This Proceedings of a Workshop summarizes the presentations and discussions from the second workshop.

“The Coronavirus Vaccine Manufacturing Failures of Emergent Biosolutions”

This week, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. James E. Clyburn, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, released a staff report on their joint investigation into coronavirus vaccine manufacturing failures of Emergent BioSolutions, Inc. (Emergent). These failures occurred under a contract awarded by the Trump administration despite warnings about the company’s history of serious deficiencies.

According to the Committee on Oversight and Reform, “New evidence shows that nearly 400 million doses of coronavirus vaccines—significantly more than previously known—were destroyed because of Emergent’s failure to meet or maintain quality standards at its Bayview manufacturing facility. Internal communications reveal efforts by Emergent executives to hide evidence of contamination in an attempt to evade oversight from government regulators.” The report also found that Emergent executives promoted their manufacturing capability despite being warned for years by their then Executive Vice President of Manufacturing and Technical Operations that the company’s quality systems were deficient. Furthermore “FDA, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca identified multiple deficiencies at Bayview, which Emergent failed to remediate despite urgent warnings.” The report also determined that inexperienced staff and high rates of staff turnover at Emergent contributed to the vaccine contamination. HHS, under the Biden administration, terminated its contract with Emergent because the company failed to follow federal manufacturing standards. The report notes, “According to HHS, Emergent received $330 million in taxpayer dollars before the Biden Administration terminated the company’s contract in November 2021.  This action saved taxpayers $320 million that remained on the contract and came after the Committees launched an investigation and released preliminary findings about Emergent’s troubling conduct.”

“Global Report on Infection Prevention and Control”

The WHO has launched the first ever global report on infection prevention and control (IPC), revealing that “good IPC programmes can reduce health care infections by 70%.” The WHO explains, “Today, out of every 100 patients in acute-care hospitals, seven patients in high-income countries and 15 patients in low- and middle-income countries will acquire at least one health care-associated infection (HAI) during their hospital stay. On average, 1 in every 10 affected patients will die from their HAI.” This report finds that high-income countries are more likely to be further progressing in improving their IPC, and “are eight times more likely to have a more advanced IPC implementation status than low-income countries.” The report also notes that “…little improvement was seen between 2018 and 2021 in the implementation of IPC national programmes in low-income countries, despite increased attention being paid generally to IPC due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” WHO calls on all countries to increase their IPC investments to help improve quality of care and patient and worker safety.

“Archival Influenza Virus Genomes from Europe Reveal Genomic Variability During the 1918 Pandemic”

In the decades since the 1918 flu pandemic, improvements in technology have allowed researchers to learn more about the H1N1 virus that killed an estimated 50 million globally. However, questions have still remained regarding how and why the virus changed as time progressed, especially since its first wave was relatively tame compared to later waves. However, Patrono et al. recently published their research helping answer some of these questions. Dan Robitzski with The Scientist explains, the “researchers managed to extract viral genomes from tissue samples of people who caught the 1918 pandemic flu in different years to show how the virus mutated over time to adapt to the human immune system. They conclude that the virus may have evolved into the pathogen that circulated as a seasonal flu after the pandemic ended.”

Patrono et al. write in Nature Communications,

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the deadliest respiratory pandemic of the 20th century and determined the genomic make-up of subsequent human influenza A viruses (IAV). Here, we analyze both the first 1918 IAV genomes from Europe and the first from samples prior to the autumn peak. 1918 IAV genomic diversity is consistent with a combination of local transmission and long-distance dispersal events. Comparison of genomes before and during the pandemic peak shows variation at two sites in the nucleoprotein gene associated with resistance to host antiviral response, pointing at a possible adaptation of 1918 IAV to humans. Finally, local molecular clock modeling suggests a pure pandemic descent of seasonal H1N1 IAV as an alternative to the hypothesis of origination through an intrasubtype reassortment.

Influenza Milestones, Source: CDC

New York Times- The Daily: “One Million”

Today’s episode of The Daily podcast discusses the impending one millionth confirmed COVID-19 death in the United States, providing stories of some of the lives lost and the impact this has had on the living. “One million empty chairs around the dinner table. Each an irreplaceable loss,” President Biden said in a statement Thursday. “Each leaving behind a family, a community, and a nation forever changed because of this pandemic.” The podcast producers write, “We asked listeners to share memories about loved ones they have lost — and about what it’s like to grieve when it seems like the rest of the world is trying to move on. “Time keeps moving forward, and the world desperately wants to move past this pandemic,” one told us. “But my mother — she’s still gone.”” One million people is a number difficult to comprehend, but humanizing this massive number can help one process the gravity of the loss the country has suffered during this pandemic.

What Is Biosecurity for the Twenty-First Century?

After September 11 and the anthrax attacks in 2001, the United States adopted a top-down governance structure for bioterrorism that famously employed “guns, gates, and guards” to prevent attacks, while keeping track of suspicious “insiders” who might cause harm. But today, after the emergence of the novel coronavirus and its variants, society’s idea of what constitutes biological security and safety is changing. Looking toward a future in which gene editing can be done by do-it-yourselfers, biological engineering is common, and environmental changes shape new biorealities, the old top-down model of biosecurity will not be up to the task.

On May 23 at 3:00 PM ET, join Melissa Haendel (University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus), David Gillum (Arizona State University), Sam Weiss Evans (Harvard Kennedy School), and Yong-Bee Lim (Council on Strategic Risks) for a discussion moderated by Bryan Walsh (Vox Future Perfect) on how to reimagine biosecurity and biosafety—and even the relationship between biological research and society—for a new era. Register for the event here.

The Danger of Disinformation: Understanding Russia’s Propaganda Campaign Against Ukrainian Biological Facilities

Join NTI for a conversation with Dr. Gregory Koblentz, one of the world’s foremost biodefense scholars working at the nexus of health, science, and security, to discuss the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign against biological research facilities in Ukraine.

As part of an effort to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought to sow doubt and confusion around the purpose of public health and research labs in the country, spreading disinformation that these facilities are conducting covert, offensive bioweapon development operations. This tactic is a longstanding favorite of the Russian government, going back decades. Koblentz will explore the true aims of Russia’s disinformation campaign in Ukraine and what the international community should do to counter it. This seminar will be held on May 17 at 11 am EST. Register here.

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

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

Dr. Gregory D. Bossart Memorial One Health Scholarship Call for Applicants

A $5,000 USD Dr. Greg Bossart Memorial Scholarship is available to a graduate student in wildlife biology, epidemiology, veterinary, medical, public health, basic or social sciences or other post-graduate program focusing on the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment using a One Health framework. The application deadline is July 1, 20022, at 11:59 pm EDT. Learn more about Dr. Bossart and the scholarship here.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

“Russia Targets Azerbaijan, Others With Fake Bioweapons Claims”

Voice of America’s Polygraph.info fact-checking site published this fact-check discussing Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev’s April 27 claim that, “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its satellites deployed a network of bio-laboratories in the space of the former Soviet republics – in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, where, under the guise of scientific research, they conduct military-biological activities.” Following Russia’s claim that it “could face biological threats from lab leaks in countries on its southern borders,” Azerbaijan’s State Security Service rejected the claims such labs have never operated in the country on May 7.

“Americans Love Conspiracy Theories, and That’s Dangerous for Everyone”

Matthew A. Baum and Katherine Ognyanova with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists discuss some of their findings from the COVID States Project in this piece. They explain their recent national survey asking respondents to assess the accuracy of eight popular false claims, four of which were about the COVID-19 vaccine. The other four pertained to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They also asked respondents about their attitudes and behaviors regarding both crises. They write, “The results contain both good and bad news. The good news is that in both cases, most Americans did not believe false claims about either crisis…The bad news is that relatively large percentages of respondents were unsure about the accuracy of the false claims.”

Something a Little Less Serious If You Made It This Far… “Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab Wins NPDN’s Rotten Tuber Award for ‘Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!’”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced Wednesday that the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab at Utah State University was awarded first place in the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN)’s Rotten Tuber Awards for its submission – “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” The Rotten Tuber Awards recognize unique samples that leave plant diagnosticians asking themselves, “What was this person thinking when they sent this sample?” From USDA NIFA:

“Enjoy “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” submitted by Zach Schumm, arthropod diagnostician and urban IPM associate, and Claudia Nischwitz, plant pathologist specialist:

“In mid-August 2021, the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab received a frantic call from an individual at a local Department of Health regarding a substance that was found on school buses that were about to be sent out to pick up children. They weren’t sure what the substance was and due to safety concerns, they delayed the use of the buses. Thinking the substance could be from a plant or plant derived, they contacted us in the diagnostic lab to see if we could offer any immediate advice. But they made it abundantly clear that they had no idea what the substance could have been. And tensions were clearly high! 

“When we were contacted by the individual, Zach Schumm had them send photographs of the substance and told them we would call back immediately once we got a look. Zach identified the substance immediately as bee excrement and nothing of concern. Within a few minutes, we called the individual back and she immediately put me on speakerphone. 

“Schumm vividly remembers telling them I knew what the substance was, and they replied “Oh my god! Okay wait! I am putting you on speaker phone with others from the department of health, the local sheriff’s department and the hazmat team. We are all stationed on-site under a tent!” This was no ordinary response; it was being treated as a potential threat and public health crisis. So there Zach is, one minute just eating a bland lunch and thinking his job is to identify insects, and the next minute he’s talking to high-level officials with much more authority than himself about the simple fact that bees decided to poop on their school buses.

“To help confirm the substance identification, Zach asked them if there were any agricultural fields nearby that would result in a high abundance of bees. Sure enough, the place where the buses were parked was adjacent to agricultural fields. 

“When Zach applied to his position — arthropod diagnostician — he wasn’t aware that he was going to have to save the day by saying the word “poop” to a hazmat team and the Department of Health. We are eternally grateful about the quick response by Utah officials to keep Utah’s children safe when there was a concern, but you can’t help but laugh at the situation.”

The culprit, pictured moments after terrorizing school buses in Utah. Source: KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Pandora Report: 5.6.2022

Happy National Nurses Day to all our readers in the US and a big thank you to the countless nurses working hard always, but especially during this pandemic! Our main focus this week is on the continued spread of H5N1 influenza in the United States and current challenges and evolving knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic as BA.2.12.1 accounts for more and more cases. We have also included several new publications, a couple of great new podcast episodes, and announcements, including the launch of CBWNet. Finally, in case you missed it, check out our May 4 special feature on bioweapons in Star Wars on our site.

The Birds, 2022 Edition

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A(H5N1) continues to spread in the United States with 32 states reporting at least one confirmed infected flock as of May 5, 2022. Iowa has the most infected birds currently, with USDA reporting a total of 13,373,901 infections in that state. Minnesota has the most infected flocks currently at 69. 34 states have also reported positive samples in wild bird populations across the country. This has prompted massive poultry culling across the US in an attempt to control outbreaks in commercial and backyard flocks. For example, Rembrandt Enterprises, a large egg producer in Iowa owned by the same person as the Minnesota Timberwolves, has culled 5.3 million hens so far using what some describe as inhumane methods, prompting multiple public protests at Timberwolves games (Rembrandt also laid off most of its staff in the process as well, contributing to the backlash). HPAI spreads rapidly through bird populations and is a particularly painful disease for the birds to suffer through. Many of the H5 and H7 subtype viruses cause severe, systemic disease with near 100% mortality, prompting the culls. Amid skyrocketing grocery prices, eggs and poultry are especially more costly these days, with nearly 9% of all US hens having been culled recently. This is particularly challenging as the world, including the US, has steadily increased its egg consumption over the last decade, with many turning to chicken eggs as a cheaper source of protein compared to meat.

US states with detection of HPAI in wild birds as of May 5, 2022. Source: USDA APHIS

While large commercial flocks are easy targets for rapid infection, illegal cockfighting rings are also pressing dangers. Cockfighting is illegal in all US states and it is penalized as a felony in 42 of them, though enforcement and punishment vary. Oklahoma, a state with at least 20 documented major cockfighting traffickers, is especially at risk as it is a prime location for inter-state shipment of fighting birds who have higher chances of coming into contact with commercial birds along the way. Of the Oklahoma rings, Wayne Pacelle (President of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Human Economy) said, ““Cockfighting has unique potential to make the avian influenza outbreak even more deadly and far-reaching. Cockfighters are orchestrating illegal fights in state that cluster people and their animals from multiple states, creating perfect conditions for birds to contract the disease and then to spread it back home when the derbies are done.”

This comes as some in the Oklahoma legislature seek to lessen punishments for cockfighting. State Rep. Justin Humphrey’s measure would also “redefine the definition of “cockfighting.” Only when the birds are fitted with artificial spurs, knives or gaffs would it be considered a cockfight. Language would be removed from the law that currently includes “any training fight in which birds are intended or encouraged to attack or fight with one another” under the definition of “cockfight.” This bill, HB 3283, passed out of committee with a 5-0 vote before failing to be voted on before the legislative deadline, though Humphrey later amended a similar Senate bill that subsequently also passed the House committee. Oklahoma City’s Journal Record wrote, “Tropical conditions overseas, where there is a demand for cockfighting birds, makes it difficult to raise healthy birds in those climates – that’s why they buy quality birds from Oklahoma, Humphrey said. Purchasers might buy several males aged 10 months, raise them to two years and then choose best to use for breeding the next generation.”

Colorado reported a case of H5 influenza in a person who had direct exposure to poultry while culling animals with presumptive H5N1 bird flu late last month. CDC has confirmed the case and insists that the public health risk of H5N1 remains low as this person had direct exposure to infected animals. The patient experienced several days of fatigue (their only symptom) and has since recovered following isolation and treatment with oseltamivir (Tamiflu). CDC has been monitoring exposed humans for symptoms since the outbreaks were first detected in bird populations in late 2021, finding just one case so far in the 2,500 people tracked. The UK notified the WHO of a confirmed human H5 case in South West England in January of this year, bringing the human case total to two so far this round. Over 880 human infections with previous H5N1 viruses have been reported since 2003, though the predominant H5N1 viruses circulating currently in birds globally are different from previous viruses, according to CDC. 10 people who came into contact with the Colorado case or were also exposed at work are under close observation.

“Transmission electron microscopic image of two Influenza A (H5N1) virions, a type of bird flu virus Note the glycoprotein spikes along the surface of the virion and as a stippled appearance of the viral envelope encasing each virion.” Source: CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith; Jackie Katz

Avian influenza (AI) cases have been documented in commercial flocks since at least the 1800s. However, AI became a much more troubling threat at the end of the 20th century when an H5N1 outbreak in Hong Kong resulted in 18 infections and six deaths in the human population and the culling of over 1 million chickens. Outbreaks of H5N1 naturally occur every few years, with the last one in the US occurring in 2014 and 2015. While bird flu viruses typically do not infect humans (and generally only infect those with close contact with infected animals), there is concern that these viruses might mutate and become better able to spread in human populations, potentially causing wide spread disease. There is no indication this has happened yet, but it is important to limit the opportunity for this to happen by containing the outbreak. Read more on precautions, including those for bird feeders, from the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.

Our Evolving Understanding of COVID-19 and Its Impacts

27 months into the pandemic, the United States reached 1 million COVID-19 deaths to on Wednesday. While not as high as they once were, the US is averaging about 600 deaths per day in its current 7-day average. Cases are continuing to climb as well across the country, with the BA.2.12.1 subvariant now accounting for 29% of new infections. The WHO also confirmed this week that the world saw 14.9 million excess deaths associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, a grim reminder of how severe this has been.

This comes as the FDA announced this week that it is limiting the EUA on the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine “to individuals 18 years of age and older for whom other authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccines are not accessible or clinically appropriate, and to individuals 18 years of age and older who elect to receive the Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine because they would otherwise not receive a COVID-19 vaccine.” The FDA stated this is because of the risk of developing thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome associated with the J&J vaccine. Unlike the mRNA offerings from Pfizer and Moderna, the J&J vaccine uses more traditional viral vector technology, using a disabled adenovirus to deliver COVID-19’s DNA to cells, instructing them to produce the spike proteins. This prompts the body to mount an immune response by creating antigens. While the J&J vaccine was initially thought to be a game changer in terms of its potential to increase patient compliance versus that of the two dose vaccines, it only proved to be 66.3% effective in preventing lab-confirmed COVID-19 infection, despite being highly efficacious in preventing hospitalization and death in those who did fall ill. It also was later found to be less effective against the Delta and Omicron variants that emerged in late 2021. This EUA limitation comes alongside pandemic response challenges. With the prospect of more COVID-19 funding for the administration held up in Congress, it’s unclear if the Biden administration could even afford a broader push for second boosters the FDA has hinted at recently.

The recent Omicron subvariants have, in some ways, fundamentally changed how many think of the pandemic. With the federal mask mandate struck down, many, including Delta Airlines, have celebrated the “return to normal” and COVID-19’s transition “to an ordinary seasonal virus.” Megan Molteni with STAT News notes that COVID-19 has yet to find a seasonal cadence and COVID-19 is still more than capable of causing mass death and disability, as recently witnessed in Hong Kong. Omicron has brought a number of changes still, such as drastic differences in how the virus spreads among people. Whereas up to 80% of infections with the original version were caused by about 10 to 20% of those infected, Omicron is spreading much more in places like households, meaning superspreader events might be less important as key drivers of outbreaks. Given the drastic differences in variants, some scientists think it is worth turning to prior variants that never took off as much as ones like Delta and Omicron to better understand what future variants might bring, according to this new article in the New York Times.

Of course, the costs of this pandemic have not been limited to lives alone. A recent article in Nature examines the long-term health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers (HCWs). The results are not all that surprising–more front-line HCWs now show signs of PTSD than they did before the pandemic. In the article, Ouyang et al. seek to “investigate the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in HCWs in a longitudinal manner.” They also aim to further explore how risk perception impacts the evolution of PTSD over a longer period of time using a one-year follow-up study. Their study used HCWs in Guangdong, China (a coastal city bordering Macau and Hong Kong) and concludes, “Our data provide a snapshot of the worsening of HCWs’ PTSD along with the repeated pandemic outbreaks and highlight the important role of risk perception in the development of PTSD symptoms in HCWs over time.”

“Risky ‘Gain-of-Function’ Studies Need Stricter Guidance, Say US Researchers”

This new news piece from Nature details experts’ calls for the US government to improve its guidance on experiments that might make pathogens more deadly or transmissible. It covers the April 27 listening session offered by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), to which Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz provided a statement. The Nature article explains that, “Many at the listening session pushed for stricter oversight of risky-pathogen research, however. Some suggested that the HHS advisory-panel approach be extended to other US entities. Gregory Koblentz, a biosecurity-policy specialist at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, pointed out that pharmaceutical firms, philanthropic institutions and federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense, also conduct research on potentially risky pathogens. They should adhere to the same guidelines, he said.”

While the debate about gain-of-function (GoF) testing has been strong over the last decade, it has gained renewed attention amid the COVID-19 pandemic and debates about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. In 2014, the US government announced a funding moratorium on GoF experiments that was lifted in 2017 after HHS implemented an extra review layer for such experiments. While most virologists think SARS-CoV-2 spilled-over to humans directly from animals, this has remained a political debate in the US centering on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Regardless of COVID-19’s origin, concerns over these kinds of experiments and challenges in biosecurity standards should still be reviewed and addressed now before it is too late. Watch the NSABB listening session recording here and read the Under the NIH Poliscope blog post about it here.

“Building a Sustainable Biopreparedness Industrial Base”

The MITRE Corporation recently released this report discussing the state of the American biopharma industry and what objectives the US government should pursue within it. MITRE identifies several shortfalls across USG capabilities, the mRNA industry, and the mRNA supply chain and ecosystem. The report argues that “To counter strategic competition in this industry, the United States needs a focused approach to drive action and accountability on sustaining needed capacity and capabilities. However, a history of inconsistent priorities and funding constitutes a significant barrier to creating a strong partnership between government and industry in this sector.” The report outlines a number of courses of action the US government can take to help improve this capacity and help protect the US population from future biological threats.

“Strengthening Biological Security After COVID-19: Using Cartoons for Engaging Life Science Stakeholders with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention”

Novossiolova et al.’s new article in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity reports on the development of an awareness-raising resource which uses the cartoon format to facilitate consideration of biological and chemical security issues. This resource takes the form of a cartoon series comprising five two-page thematic cartoons. The cartoon series was published by the London Metropolitan University, UK and is freely available online in 13 languages. Indicative facilitation notes aim to support the use of the cartoon series for outreach and training.

Critical Federal Capabilities Needed to Evaluate Real-World Safety, Effectiveness, and Equitable Distribution and Use of Medical Countermeasures During a Public Health Emergency

From the National Academies:

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of having access to real-world data and evidence to monitor and assess medical countermeasure (MCM) use and performance so policy makers can make more effective and rapid public health decisions, protect population health, and save lives. During public health emergencies, the use of MCMs, such as therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostics, can be made available to the public under a range of regulatory access mechanisms.

This Rapid Expert Consultation was produced by individual members of the Standing Committee for CDC Center for Preparedness and Response. Its aim is to review and propose modifications to an initial draft list of critical federal capabilities presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that are needed to evaluate real-world safety, effectiveness, equitable distribution, access, and use of MCMs during a public health emergency. This effort draws from expert input, published literature, and lessons learned from previous public health emergencies, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Summit on Strengthening the Nation’s Early Warning System for Health Threats: A Meeting Summary”

The White House released this meeting summary covering its April 19 Summit supporting the launch of the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (CFA). The summit included panels on Next-Generation Public Health Data and Analytics, Enabling Local Governments, Strengthening the System for Patients, and closing remarks from Dr. Sandi Ford, Special Assistant to the President for Public Health & Science, Domestic Policy Council.

The Role of Public Health Emergency Management in Biodefense: A COVID-19 Case Study”

Incoming Biodefense PhD Student Ryan Houser recently published a new article in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. Houser uses the COVID-19 pandemic to “explore the biodefense and public health preparedness landscape for tends in federal support and capacity building.” He identifies a number of consistent failures and concludes that, “To counter the increasing biothreats, the United States must invest in revamping the biodefense infrastructure to mimic and support public health emergency preparedness initiatives which will increase our resilience to various biothreats.”

Student Features

Biodefense MS Student Theresa Hoang‘s research paper, “­­The Hidden Pandemic: COVID-19’s Impact on Antimicrobial Resistance”, was recently posted on the Pandora Report. Hoang uses a number of case studies to discuss how AMR has grown as a threat over the course of the pandemic and what might be done to help combat this mounting public health crisis, including improvements in antibiotic stewardship programs.

Biodefense PhD Student Danyale C. Kellogg recently discussed the threat Chinese failed outbreak responses pose to global health security on the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS) website. Kellogg, a current CSPS Fellow, covers prior failures of the Chinese Communist Party in the COVID-19 outbreak response in addition to its efforts to cover up the spread of HIV/AIDS in Henan Province in the 1990s and SARS in the early 2000s. She discusses the challenges of preparing for future pandemics in light of a rising China that is more interested in usurping the international order than promoting global health security.

This Podcast Will Kill You Episode 95, Tetanus: An Inhumane Calamity!

The Erins go beyond the risks of rusty nails and Tdap booster requirements to discuss the biology, clinical presentation, and historical and modern challenges posed by this disease. They provide an especially interesting discussion of how neonatal tetanus in the American South impacted the field of epidemiology on top of all the other great content packed into this episode.

Franklin Institute’s So Curious! Podcast: What is Biohacking? From Bodybuilding to Bacterial Shoes

Episode 9 of So Curious! continues this season’s theme of Human 2.0 by discussing innovations in hacking the human body. Covering everything from cyborgs and laws and ethics, this episode features Ricky Solorzano (CEO of Allevi) and Scott Shunk (a physique athlete who provides an interesting perspective on this topic). Give it a listen!

The 2021 Global Health Security Index: A Tool for Decision-Makers in Latin America

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Initiative for Global Security (IGS) are offering this Zoom event on May 11 at 3:30 pm EST. The GHS Index is a comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries. Since the launch of the first edition of the GHS Index in October 2019, much has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second edition of the GHS Index considers lessons learned from this experience and expands upon the measures of national level health security. National leaders across the globe bear a collective responsibility for developing and maintaining robust global capability to counter infectious disease threats. Political will is needed to protect people from the consequences of epidemics, to take action to save lives, and to build a safer and more secure world. Register here.

The Danger of Disinformation: Understanding Russia’s Propaganda Campaign Against Ukrainian Biological Facilities

Join NTI for a conversation with Dr. Gregory Koblentz, one of the world’s foremost biodefense scholars working at the nexus of health, science, and security, to discuss the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign against biological research facilities in Ukraine.

As part of an effort to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought to sow doubt and confusion around the purpose of public health and research labs in the country, spreading disinformation that these facilities are conducting covert, offensive bioweapon development operations. This tactic is a longstanding favorite of the Russian government, going back decades. Koblentz will explore the true aims of Russia’s disinformation campaign in Ukraine and what the international community should do to counter it. This seminar will be held on May 17 at 11 am EST. Register here.

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

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

Chemical and Biological Weapons Net Launched

The CBWNet research project received funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, lasting April 2022 through March 2026. The project will be carried out by the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), the Chair for Public Law and International Law at the University of Gießen, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and the Carl Friedrich Weizsäcker-Centre for Science and Peace Research (ZNF) at the University of Hamburg. The joint project aims to “identify options to comprehensively strengthen the norms against chemical and biological weapons (CBW).” The project includes an analysis of the normative order of these regimes and investigation of the potential consequences of certain technological developments in light of changing security dynamics. The project’s site explains, “Wherever research results point to challenges for or a weakening of CBW norms, the project partners will develop options and proposals to uphold or strengthen these norms and to enhance their resilience.”

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

“People’s Republic of China Efforts to Amplify the Kremlin’s Voice on Ukraine”

The US State Department released this Disarming Disinformation piece outlining how China and its state outlets seek to influence public opinion on Russia’s war in Ukraine. It discusses the PRC’s toolbox of methods to do this and offers a detailed timeline of these attempts along with more sources on the subject.

“Ukraine’s Battlefield Is Haunted by Putin’s Chemical Weapons Legacy”

William J. Broad’s new piece in the New York Times begins with the 2017 televised destruction of what President Vladimir Putin claimed was the last of Russia’s CW stockpile before diving into current concerns about his potential to use these weapons in Ukraine. Broad discusses differences between how the Kremlin treats nuclear and conventional war versus chemical war as well as past Russian uses of CW, including during the hostage crisis in a Moscow theater in 2002.

“Are Russia’s Claims of Ukrainian Biological Weapons a Propaganda Ploy?

Deutsche Welle released this English language backgrounder on Russian disinformation focusing on BW. It includes a portion about accusations targeting modern Germany specifically, including the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology’s collaboration with Kharkiv’s Institute of Experimental and Clinical Veterinary Medicine.

EUvsDisinfo Now Available in Mandarin Chinese

The European External Action Service’s EUvsDisinfo is now offering articles published in Chinese to target Chinese-speaking audience with factual information about the war in Ukraine. This is in response to previous alignment of pro-Kremlin and Chinese state outlets using disinformation tactics on subjects like biological weapons and the origins of COVID-19. One report released in March (““生物武器被全面禁止,但是进行生物研究并不违法””/””Bioweapons Are Totally Banned, But It’s Not Illegal to Conduct Biological Research””) discusses the mission of the Nunn Lugar Program and the legal, important public health work it conducts in host countries.

Pandora Report: 4.29.2022

Happy National Arbor Day to all our readers in the United States! To kick off this day highlighting the importance of protecting our environment and trees, we discuss how man-made climate change is increasing the spread of infectious diseases. We also cover COVID-19 as a future endemic disease, discussion of modern WMD threats, and a long list of fantastic new publications, including some by our own faculty members and students as well as friends of the Pandora Report.

Climate Change and Infectious Disease Risks- Is This the Pandemicene?

Newly published research in Nature this week reaffirms that climate change does indeed increase the risk of infectious diseases spreading. The new article by Carson et al. discusses how climate change specifically increases the chances of cross-species viral transmission. The authors explain that “At least 10,000 virus species have the capacity to infect humans, but at present, the vast majority are circulating silently in wild mammals. However, climate and land use change will produce novel opportunities for viral sharing among previously geographically-isolated species of wildlife. In some cases, this will facilitate zoonotic spillover…” Their work uses a phylogeographic model of the mammal-virus network to simulate potential hotspots of future viral sharing while also projecting geographic range shifts for over 3,100 mammal species using climate change and land use scenarios for the year 2070.

Ed Yong recently discussed this in the Atlantic, highlighting how the coming decades are estimated to see about 300,000 first encounters between species that typically do not interact. Though this number comes from some of the most optimistic climate outlooks, he explains, this would still allow for approximately 15,000 spillovers. He notes that Southeast Asia will likely be especially prone to spillovers because of a number of factors, include the wide range of bats living in the region. Africa too will likely encounter several problems, he explains, writing “In Africa, bats are probably the natural reservoirs for Ebola. Thirteen species could potentially carry the virus, and as global warming forces them to disperse, they’ll encounter almost 3,700 new mammal species, leading to almost 100 spillovers.”

Milder winters, less days with frost, increased precipitation, and hotter summers all mean it is easier for infectious diseases to spread globally and infect more people. As the world continues to fail to implement policies to reduce factors contributing to climate change, vectors will continue to spread and human populations will increasingly interact with wildlife populations. As such, it is important to invest in disease surveillance and public health infrastructure globally to meet these threats wherever they crop up. Yong summarizes this need nicely, writing “But pandemics are inherently unpredictable, and no amount of prevention will fully negate their risk. The world must be ready to meet the viruses that slip through the net. That means fortifying public health and health-care systems, strengthening social safety nets, and addressing all the weaknesses of the pre-COVID normal that made the world so vulnerable to the current pandemic and will leave it susceptible to the next. The world, in its desire to move past COVID, is already forgetting the lessons of the recent past, and perhaps assuming that a generation-defining crisis will occur only once a generation.”

COVID-19 Probably Is Not Going Anywhere

Dr. Anthony Fauci stated in an interview this week that the US is “out of the pandemic phase” in its battle with COVID-19, explaining that the virus still poses a threat but that, “We’re really in a transitional phase, from a deceleration of the numbers into hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity.” After all, the Biden administration has made Paxlovid more accessible, second boosters are authorized for older and immunocompromised people, and, according to the CDC, three out of every four children have likely been infected with COVID-19. However, Becker’s writes, “Nationwide, COVID-19 cases increased 59 percent over the past 14 days, according to HHS data collected by The New York Times. Cases of COVID-19 have increased in the last 14 days in 47 states.” Furthermore, as more Americans gain access to at-home rapid antigen tests, it is likely that a large number of people in the US are positive but do not report the test results, especially if they experience mild or no symptoms. While cases are climbing right now, the US is averaging a little over 55,000 new cases per day for the last week, a sharp difference from the over 802,000 per day average experienced in January this year. So, if more people are experiencing milder infections, the people who are going to get vaccinated have done so, and antivirals are more readily available, when will this thing go away?

Well, it probably will not go away completely. Early in the pandemic, optimistic discussion of the possibility of eradicating COVID-19 abounded. However, as time has dragged on, that possibility dwindled. Only one human disease has been eradicated- smallpox. Smallpox was one of history’s most formidable killers, but there was not an animal reservoir for it, so it only infected humans. While this fact did not make eradication easy, it made it possible to use ring vaccination campaigns to eventually suffocate the virus as there was no risk it was lurking in the wild. Dr. Fauci discussed earlier this year how COVID-19 will likely become endemic once a less severe variant becomes established and helps COVID-19 become more like all of the other infectious diseases we routinely deal with, stating “But hopefully it will be at such a low level that it doesn’t disrupt our normal social, economic and other interactions.” The possibility of new, deadlier variants emerging remains important to consider while access to vaccines and therapeutics remains inequitable globally, with the developing world still largely lacking consistent access to these resources.

This discussion also has some increasingly considering whether or not the Russian flu of the 19th century was actually a coronavirus pandemic too. The “Russian flu” was originally thought to have lasted from 1889 to 1890, killing an estimated 1 million globally and coming at a time when modern germ theory was challenging miasma theory. A recent Fortune article discusses how this was the first well-documented pandemic and how it potentially stuck around after its pandemic phase ended, likely lasting anywhere from 1894 to 1900. Interestingly, long-term complications were also experienced with the Russian flu, similar to what is observed with long COVID. The article explains some of the symptoms observed with this supposed flu: “…Brüssow refers to a 344-page doctors’ report from 1891 London, which describes Russian flu patients as suffering from a “hard, dry cough,” fevers of 100 to 105 degrees, “frontal headache of special severity,” “pains in the eyeballs,” “general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits,” and “weeping, nervous restlessness, inability to sleep, and occasional delirium.”” It also explains how children were relatively spared from it and how nearly 10% of cases had long-term symptoms, further leading to speculation this was a coronavirus pandemic. Some hypothesize this “flu” lives on today as OC43, a human coronavirus that generally causes mild upper respiratory illness, which would again point to a coronavirus pandemic that became much more mild and endemic. However, OC43 does occasionally bring increased mortality rates, with a 2021 study finding a 9.1% mortality rate in 77 patients at a Korean hospital between 2012 and 2017.

All this to say…COVID-19 probably is not going anywhere, though it might be less disruptive now. It is still important to take precautions and not fall into a sense of apathy, however, especially as factors like man made climate change mean most of us will likely experience an extreme pandemic in our lifetimes. If this all has you down, check out PBS Eons’ video about the pandemic that lasted 15 million years when ERV-Fc kept jumping around during the Oligocene and early Miocene epochs.

Is This the Cold War 2.0? Assessing Modern WMD Threats

Amid the surge in discussion and concern about potential use of WMD amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, DOD’s counter-WMD leaders warned the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month that this is a potential “wake-up call” for the US. A new piece in Air Force Magazine discusses this, quoting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, John Plumb, stating “I think the crisis in Ukraine and the blatant threats, really, by Russia of the potential use of chemical and biological weapons is opening everyone’s eyes to how much of a problem this is.” The piece further explains how the US has focused in the last decades on concerns that non-state actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda or “rogue states” like North Korea or Iran would use these weapons. However, this has been challenged by use of CW in Syria and in assassination attempts against Navalny and the Skripals. It continues with, “In order to be prepared should deterrence fail, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has directed that DOD integrate counter-WMD operations into “planning, resourcing, modernizing, and then more importantly, training and exercising, holistically,” said Vice Adm. Collin Patrick Green, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.” The reality is that, in addition to concerns about other WMD categories, advances in modern science and the current security environment are making the BW threat evolve, so this discussion is critical.

However, recognizing a threat is one thing. Adapting policies to combat it is an entire other beast. Enter Al Mauroni’s recent publication, “On Biological War” (move over Clausewitz?). Mauroni, Director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies at Air University, discusses the modern BW threat in the era of renewed great power competition, warning of the dangers of shifting to a “threat-agnostic” approach to DOD’s Chemical-Biological Defense Program. He argues that, “Prior to attempting the implementation of yet another strategy to counter biological threats, the Army needs to establish the context of how adversaries would deliberately use biological threats against U.S. national security interests.” He also stresses that such a strategy, once the threat is properly appreciated, has to be adequately resourced and implemented to address deliberate biological releases while “understanding that natural infectious diseases pose a competing priority.”

He continues by arguing that COVID-19 actually does not tell us much about how prepared the US is for a BW attack as SARS-CoV-2 has not behaved like a biological weapon. This is contrary to much of what has been argued over the course of the pandemic, offering a fresh perspective on this issue. He also discusses different approaches to developing this preparedness, focusing on one option where chemical and biological defense are a combined operational concept and another where the medical community is responsible for responding to both BW attacks and naturally occurring outbreaks. He also covers the challenges of a centralized biodefense enterprise before strongly cautioning against trying to make the Army focus on both man-made and naturally occurring outbreaks, writing “The only way to succeed in moving forward in a future biological defense posture is not, then, to dilute the Army’s efforts by trying to manage the development of defensive capabilities for all natural disease outbreaks and deliberate biological attacks under a single general construct.”

Student Feature: Emily Johnson, Biodefense MS Student, Attends ABSA Conference

Emily Johnson, a student in the Biodefense Graduate Program, attended the American Biological Safety Association’s 64th Annual Biosafety and Biosecurity Conference in October 2021. Her write up of the event is now available on the Pandora Report. She covers a number of sessions from the conference, including “Virology in the Time of a Pandemic”, “The COVID Pandemic: The Evolving Reality”, “Gene Therapy”, and “Professional Development: Identifying and Overseeing Potential DURC: A practical Guide for the Biosafety Professional”.

Combating Terrorism Center: Biological Threat Special Issue-Part One

West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center’s new issue of CTC Sentinel is packed full of work covering everything from potential bioterror exploitation of tunable viral agents to a piece on global biorisk management authored by Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London, Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and Biodefense PhD Student and CSIS Research Associate, Joseph Rodgers. Lentzos et al. discuss the need not only to address contemporary risks while creating an international biorisk framework, but to also develop “an authoritative international institution with a mandate to systematically register and track maximum containment facilities and to oversee extremely high-risk research.”

“Closing the Gap: Establishing a New UN Mechanism for Discerning the Source of Pandemics of Unknown Origins”

A team of Nuclear Threat Initiative researchers, including Former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane and Dr. Jaime Yassif, recently published this commentary piece with the European Leadership Network. In it they discuss the disruptions to regional and global security caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing concerns about use of unconventional weapons. They write, “Not least of these concerns is the dangerous disinformation campaign by Russia alleging bioweapons development in Ukraine, which has led to concerns that Russia may itself use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine as part of a false flag operation. These allegations have highlighted the salience and importance of efforts to guard against biological risks, and they have drawn attention to gaps in the global biosecurity and pandemic preparedness architecture.” They offer the idea of a Joint Assessment Mechanism that would make use of things like bioinformatics, data science, and AI to be the “eyes of the international community” in monitoring these threats.

“Biosecurity in an Age of Open Science”

Smith and Sandbrink’s new article in PLOS Biology discusses the risk of accidental or deliberate misuse of biological research and its increasing risk amid modern biotechnological advancements. They write:

The risk of accidental or deliberate misuse of biological research is increasing as biotechnology advances. As open science becomes widespread, we must consider its impact on those risks and develop solutions that ensure security while facilitating scientific progress. Here, we examine the interaction between open science practices and biosecurity and biosafety to identify risks and opportunities for risk mitigation. Increasing the availability of computational tools, datasets, and protocols could increase risks from research with misuse potential. For instance, in the context of viral engineering, open code, data, and materials may increase the risk of release of enhanced pathogens. For this dangerous subset of research, both open science and biosecurity goals may be achieved by using access-controlled repositories or application programming interfaces. While preprints accelerate dissemination of findings, their increased use could challenge strategies for risk mitigation at the publication stage. This highlights the importance of oversight earlier in the research lifecycle. Preregistration of research, a practice promoted by the open science community, provides an opportunity for achieving biosecurity risk assessment at the conception of research. Open science and biosecurity experts have an important role to play in enabling responsible research with maximal societal benefit.

“Meeting the Challenges of Chemical and Biological Weapons: Strengthening the Chemical and Biological Disarmament and Non-proliferation Regimes”

In this new report in Frontiers in Political Science, Edwards et al. offer an overview of current technical and political challenges in the CBW regime ahead of the upcoming Review Conferences for the Biological Weapons Convention (2022) and Chemical Weapons Convention (expected in 2023). They seek to provide, “…an introduction to this issue area for the general reader before surveying key issues and developing a series of practical policy suggestions for further consideration.” In doing so, they cover everything from the basics of CBW to the impacts of modern scientific advancement on proliferations of the weapons and the way different types of conflict have shaped these weapons. This very thorough report is an excellent backgrounder for anyone looking to get up to speed ahead of RevCon later this year! The report is also a key output of their ongoing project, “Informing Policymakers of the Progress in Strengthening the Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-Proliferation Regime”.

“China’s Biomedical Data Hacking Threat: Applying Big Data Isn’t as Easy as It Seems”

Drs. Kathleen M. Vogel and Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently published this piece in the Texas National Security Review. In it they explain that, “Concerns have developed in recent years about the acquisition of U.S. biomedical information by Chinese individuals and the Chinese government and how this creates security and economic threats to the United States. And yet, China’s illicit acquisition of data is only one aspect of what is required to produce an enhanced science and technology capability that would pose a security threat.” They discuss how current assessments fail to “account for the heterogeneity of big data and the challenges that any actor (state or nonstate) faces in making sense of this data and using it.” They seek to provide new socio-technical frameworks that can help better understand Chinese threats involving biomedical big data to help improve things like law enforcement and policies focusing on Chinese acquisition of this data.

“China Focuses on Ethics to Deter Another ‘CRISPRbabies’ Scandal”

Nature News Senior Reporter Smriti Mallapaty recently published this piece discussing the PRC State Council’s recent statement calling on research institutions in China to expand and improve ethics training. This directive and several others are designed to address gaps exposed by He Jiankui’s research that created the first babies with edited genomes in 2018. She writes, “The document places primary responsibility for ethics governance on institutions, but also calls for the establishment of a science and technology ethics association, which could have a role. “This is really refreshing,” says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. Academic associations in China have conventionally played a limited role in regulatory discussions, but they could help enforce ethical norms, she says.” However, she later explains that “…some researchers worry that the statement might deter those wanting to engage in scientifically valuable research topics that can be responsibly conducted but that could raise ethical questions, says Nie. “They will say ‘I will not bother because I do not want to get in trouble’.” This complicated topic and its potential security challenges were highlighted by Biodefense Graduate Program faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley in her award winning paper, “From CRISPR Babies to Super Soldiers: Challenges and Security Threats Posed by CRISPR”.

“Evidence-Based Laboratory Biorisk Management Science and Technology Roadmap”

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) recently released this roadmap from the National Science and Technology Council’s Health Security Threats Subcommittee on Laboratory Biosafety and Biosecurity. It discusses the current challenges in this area before offering recommendations, including the need for government-wide coordination, biorisk management data-sharing, and a globally distributed research agenda. It also identifies applied biorisk research priorities, including sociology of laboratory biorisk management and evaluation of risk assessment and management methods.

“Countering the Future Chemical Weapons Threat”

Dr. Tuan Nguyen of Lawrence Livermore National Lab recently published this policy forum piece in Science discussing challenges facing the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in today’s security environment. The OPCW was created as the implementing body for the CWC, which is set for review next year. The CWC is the first multilateral disarmament treaty that provides universal standards for the elimination of an entire WMD category. To date, the OPCW has conducted over 4,200 industry inspections and overseen the destruction of 71,614 metric tons of the world’s declared CW stockpiles. He discusses how the OPCW will eventually need to shift more towards focusing on nonproliferation than disarmament, writing “As the next CWC review conference approaches in 2023, a next-generation OPCW 2.0 can be effective and credible only if it reinforces international norms against CW, anticipates future challenges posed by advancements in science and technology (S&T), incorporates more qualitative elements into the verification and compliance system, and keeps pace with technological change.”

“War Amid a Pandemic: The Public Health Consequences of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”

The Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently published this piece addressing a number of questions about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has impacted healthcare and public health in the war-torn country. It covers everything from low vaccination rates to the health security challenge of the influx of Ukrainian refugees into Europe, concluding “As the course of the war and true costs of reconstruction become clearer, there must be a dose of caution: after two years of intensive global spending on the Covid-19 response, public health and foreign assistance budgets are strained, if not exhausted. Even with more creative sources of funds and the extraordinary response to the Ukrainian cause to date, spending fatigue will be a looming concern, particularly as the cost of reconstruction efforts is expected to number in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Concerted effort will be required to sustain global solidarity and meet the ambition required for durable public health recovery in Ukraine.”

“The Perils of Machine Learning in Designing New Chemicals and Materials”

Shankar and Zare recently published this correspondence piece in Nature Machine Intelligence. In it they discuss how machine learning will revolutionize practice in chemistry and materials science. They write, “Already, machine learning is being used to find new pharmaceutical compounds, including in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This holds great promise for the future, but also great peril. Right now, too little attention is being paid to the downside, as pointed out in a recent Comment by Urbina et al.” They explain how less than 1% of the chemicals registered for commercial use in the US have undergone toxicity characterization and how material and chemical use increased to 60 billion tons annually over the last century. They conclude that, “There is an intrinsic conflict between making work public, to encourage adoption and improvement of new codes and databases, and protecting it from abuse and misuse,” ultimately calling for a conference of experts to create a plan to balance safe deployment and wide utility of these capabilities. Scientific American also recently published a piece featuring Drs. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London and Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley of George Mason University’s Biodefense Graduate Program discussing the risk of AI drug discovery systems being repurposed to make chemical weapons.

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

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

Biological and Chemical Weapons Security and the War in Ukraine

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

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

“Biological Weapons Are Banned: Biological Research Is Not”

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 4.22.2022

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

The CDC’s New Pandemic “Weather Service”

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

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

China’s “Zero-Covid” Toll Grows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CSIS Coronavirus Crisis Update Ft. Dr. Beth Cameron

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

The Athena Agenda: Advancing the Apollo Program for Biodefense

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

The Bubble Benefits From Some GMU Biodefense Program Knowledge

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

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

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

Biological and Chemical Weapons Security and the War in Ukraine

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

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

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

Women in STEM with Syra Madad and Linda Mobula

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

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

“Biological Weapons Are Banned: Biological Research Is Not”

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 4.15.2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why the World Has No Universal Biosafety Standards”

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

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

“BWC Assurance: Increasing Certainty in BWC Compliance”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malaria in Africa: Translating Science Into Practice

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

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

“Biological Weapons Are Banned: Biological Research Is Not”

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 4.8.2022

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

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

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

The Biological Weapons Convention Turns 50

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai in Lockdown

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

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

CDC to Undergo Month-Long Evaluation Following Relentless Criticism

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

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

Health Security Intelligence- An Operations Perspective

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

New Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report

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

New AMR Strategic Plan from WHO and Others

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

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

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

Biological and Chemical Warfare in Ancient Myth and History

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

ASPR TRACIE Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare System Considerations

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

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 4.1.2022

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

Sign of the Times? Gruinard Island Is On Fire

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

Russia Continues Attacks On Ukrainian Healthcare Facilities

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

WMD and CBRN Concerns in the War Persist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is It Time For a National Biorisk Management Agency?

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

Addressing Inaccurate Information on Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration

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

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

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

“Here CRISPR Kitty?”

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

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

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

Fifth Annual Global Health 50/50 Report Released

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

National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters Meeting

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

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

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

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

Ukraine: Is a Chemical or Biological Attack Likely?

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

Have You Been Lied to About Ukrainian Biolabs? 

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

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

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

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

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

Council on Strategic Risks

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

Nuclear Threat Initiative

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

Congressional Research Service

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

CBW Events Ukraine FAQ Page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 3.25.2022

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

Has the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gone Rogue?

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

North Korea Conducts First ICBM Test Since 2017

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

Biodefense Students Conduct Vector Surveillance in Kenya for Spring Break

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

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

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

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

Omicron Subvariant BA.2 Updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNIDIR- Potential Outcomes of the Ninth BWC Review Conference

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

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

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

CSIS Global Health Policy Center Coronavirus Crisis Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO Outreach and Engagement Consultant Job Opening Announcement

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

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

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

Have You Been Lied to About Ukrainian Biolabs? 

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

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

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

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

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

Council on Strategic Risks

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

Nuclear Threat Initiative

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

Congressional Research Service

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

CBW Events Ukraine FAQ Page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 3.11.2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds of Mass Destruction?

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

A Note On Biosafety Levels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Helpful Resources On This Topic:

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

US Surgeon General Releases RFI on COVID-19 Disinformation

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

WHO Issues Situation Report on the Russo-Ukrainian War

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

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

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

US Intelligence Community Releases Annual Threat Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APIC Releases New Recommendations for Balancing Patient Safety and Pandemic Response

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

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

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

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

Insidious Insights: Implications of Viral Vector Engineering for Pathogen Enhancement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find more information and register here.

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 3.4.2016

Dirty bombs, Zika virus, and biosecurity in Iraq? That’s just a taste of the biodefense news we’ve got in store for you this week. While norovirus hits the East Coast (thanks, oysters!) and an additional three cases were confirmed in the seven-month-long Listeria outbreak associated with Dole salads, it’s no wonder there’s been work to build a new US food safety system. Next month the CDC will be working with state and local officials to establish plans in the most hard-hit Zika areas.

Assessing America’s Soft Underbelly and The Threat of Agroterrorism
The House Committee on Homeland Security’s Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee held a hearing on Friday in which they discussed and reviewed the risk of agroterrorism or natural agro-disasters. Disruption to the agriculture infrastructure and economy could be devastating to the US. Regardless if it’s private or public sectors, preparedness is vital to reduce calamitous damage. “US food and agriculture accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s economic activity, contributed $835 billion to the US gross domestic product in 2014, and is responsible for one out of every 12 US jobs, according to Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ).” Consider the impact of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) on their respective sectors and country economies. Some of the highlighted vulnerabilities and challenges were insufficient quantity of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) vaccine, gaps in US biosecurity, traceability, gaps in detection, data sharing for regulated disease, and more.

Strengthening Biosecurity in Iraq: Development of a National Biorisk Management SystemScreen Shot 2016-03-04 at 10.02.47 AM
GMU Biodefense director and professor, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and Mahdi al-Jewari, director of the biology department for the Iraqi National Monitoring Authority in the Iraq Ministry of Science of Technology, have joined together to discuss the furthering of Iraqi biosecurity. Mahdi al-Jewari visited GMU in early 2015 to speak on global biorisk management, hosted by the GMU School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs. In their research, Dr. Koblentz and Mr. al-Jewari discuss Iraq’s implementation of its non-proliferation commitments, highlighting that since 2004 “Iraq has taken a series of practical steps to implement its obligations under international non-proliferation treaties to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery to states and non-state actors.” The Iraqi National Monitoring Authority, established in 2012, strives to strengthen their biosecurity program through three primary functions: compliance, monitoring of dual-use materials, and capacity building. The National Biorisk Management System has also highlighted four priorities to “counter biological threats: establishing a national pathogen list, building laboratory capacity, developing the capability to conduct joint law enforcement–public health investigations, and establishing a biorisk management law. The NBMC has established sub-committees charged with developing new policies and programs to achieve these four objectives.” While sustainability will be the most challenging hurdle for Iraq, commitment to investments  in infrastructure, IT, biosecurity, and biosurveillance systems can help them overcome these difficulties.

Just How Far Down the Zika Rabbit Hole Are We So Far?
It seems like every week we’re learning new things about Zika virus and how much work needs to be done. I wonder, how far have we made it down the rabbit hole for Zika and how much more do we have to go? While the Aedes mosquito is the reigning king of Zika virus infections, what about animals? The CDC recently released information regarding the concerns over zoonotic cases. Originally discovered in a monkey in the Zika Forest in 1940’s Uganda , the CDC maintains that “at this time, animals do not appear to be involved in the spread” and that there is no evidence of zoonotic transmission. “Nonhuman primates (apes and monkeys) have shown the ability to become infected with Zika virus; but, only a few naturally and experimentally infected monkeys and apes have had any signs of illness at all, and then it was only a mild, transient fever without any other symptoms.” As international public health teams descend upon the outbreak regions, we will surely be learning more about this outbreak. Perhaps the most challenging issue is the dissemination of information, especially in regions of high transmission. University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health infectious disease professor, Dr. Kacey Ernst, is one of the top vector-borne researchers and she recently explained: “The Zika virus pandemic, thought to be primarily caused by transmission of the virus through Ae. aegypti requires urgent action to determine the role of the virus in neurological sequalea, including microcephaly as well as the relative transmission potential of Ae. albopictus. Given the important role of communities in preventing the proliferation of the peridomestic, anthropophilic Ae. aegypti, communication between the scientific communities and the public must be heightened to ensure timely dissemination of surveillance information. While much of the United States is currently too cold to allow high densities of the primary vector of Zika virus, Ae. aegypti, the growing evidence surrounding the role of sexual transmission in the spread of Zika could imply that outbreaks of disease are possible even when transmission by the mosquito is not. More research is needed to delineate the two modes of transmission and the role that sexual transmission may be playing in the explosive spread of Zika across Latin America and the Caribbean.” In more Zika updates, blood samples from French Polynesia patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) during their Zika virus outbreak are revealing the first look into the reality that Zika may actually cause GBS. The CDC is also urging pregnant women to avoid the summer Olympics in Brazil due to the outbreak. The FDA also just issued their Emergency Use Authorization for a Zika diagnostic tool for qualified countries. As of March 2nd, the CDC has reported 153 travel-associated Zika virus cases within the US.

Education Gaps on Dirty Bombs
David Ropeik from Scientific American discusses the impact that poor education and fear regarding dirty bombs can pose during an emergency. “The prospect of such a bomb seems terrifying, but anyone who knows the basic science of radiation biology knows that it wouldn’t cause much health damage, because the dose of radioactivity to which most people might be exposed would be very low. And experts know, based on the 65 year Life Span Study of the survivors of atomic bomb explosions in Japan, that even at extraordinarily high doses, ionizing radiation only raises lifetime cancer mortality rates a little bit—just two thirds of one percent for survivors who were within three kilometers of ground zero.” Few people know that low doses from a dirty bomb exposure pose little (not zero, but minimal) health risks, but rather people tend to hear “radioactive” or “nuclear radiation” and run screaming to the hills like a zombie hoard is approaching. While Ropeik points out that there will of course be devastation and economic damage, the resulting stress, fear, and public outcry for retaliation can be just as damaging. So what can we do? He points to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and CDC educational sites, but emphasizes that in the end, a communication campaign to combat fear would “take at least some power of a dirty bomb to terrorize us out of the hands of the terrorists”.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Biosurviellance Ecosystem- The DoD and DHS are currently working on a new system that would allow epidemiologists to “scan the planet for anomalies in human and animal disease prevalence, warn of coming pandemics, and protect warfighters and others worldwide.” The Biosurveillance Ecosystem (BSVE) is a brain child that would allow epidemiologists to customize and collaborate – better yet, it’s being developed using open-source software and works “as a dashboard-like service from the cloud, accessible through an Internet browser”.
  • Select Agent Guidance– The Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) is asking for community members to submit comments regarding the Guidance for Nonviable Select Agents and Nonfunctional Select Toxins. If you’re a member of the regulated community, help the FSAP become more transparent and strengthen biosecurity efforts! Comments will be accepted through March 14, 2016.
  • Giant Virus Secret Weapon: An Immune System – Whether it’s Frankenvirus or one of the other hundreds of giant viruses researchers have been finding, they’re teaching us a lot about secret weapons within the virus arsenal. Researchers working with a few of the giant viruses reported on Monday that some of the genes actually provide an immune system. Even crazier? The immune system “works a lot like the CRISPR system in bacteria that scientists have co-opted as a powerful gene editing tool.”