Pandora Report 3.3.2023

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

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

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

What Actually Happened This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran Investigating Reports of Schoolgirl Poisonings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prevention of Zoonotic Spillover”

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

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

Read this position paper here.

“WHO Warns of Worsening Health Situation in Ukraine”

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

Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing

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

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

Register here.

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

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

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

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

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

Intelligence Studies Consortium

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

The symposium will feature student presentations in four panels:

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

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

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

Learn more and register here.

Charity Entrepreneurship 2023 Charity Ideas

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

Sustainable Diagnostic Containment Laboratories – Request for Expressions of Interest

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

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

Learn more and register here.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). This week, we are throwing it back to middle school English class: This chemical agent features in Roald Dahl’s famous short story, The Landlady, in which the main character is given a tea that tastes of bitter almonds. What is the name of this agent?

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

Pandora Report 8.26.2016

A new report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pointing to a harsh reality that despite incomplete and inaccurate Syrian disclosures, there are traces of nerve agents in their laboratories. While they promised to destroy their entire arsenal, there is a growing concern that Damascus has not followed through on commitments to destroy all of its armaments.   Feel like a biodefense arts and crafts project?  You can learn to make a plague doctor’s mask here. Chem-Bio warfare suits may be getting a fashionable upgrade as companies like Lululemon and Under Armor are competing to revolutionize the protective equipment. 

UN Security Council – Calls for Eradicating WMD’s  689139
On Tuesday, GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, briefed the UN Security Council on how terrorists could exploit advances in science and technology to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He delivered the briefing as part of a Security Council open debate on WMD nonproliferation that is part of the comprehensive review currently being conducted of Resolution 1540. You can read the summary of the meeting here, but the focus was on the evolving threat of WMD’s falling into the hands of non-state terrorists and actors. Emphasizing the threat of biological weapons, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon “questioned the international community’s ability to prevent or respond to a biological attack.  He also suggested giving a closer look at the nexus between emerging technologies — such as information and communication technologies, artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and synthetic biology — and weapons of mass destruction.” Dr. Koblentz (27 minutes into the broadcast of the meeting here) pointed to the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a source for huge gains in both productivity and prosperity, but also a darker potential for mis-use by non-state actors. Within his talk, Dr. Koblentz noted the five advances in science and technology that “increase the risk of CBRN weapons proliferation to non-state actors”. The advances include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 3D printing, accessibility of illicit items on the Dark Web, malicious software and cyber attacks, and genetic engineering tools like CRISPR-Cas9. While these advances reveal the diverse technology, there are also seven deadly traits within these emerging technologies – dual-use, disruptive, diffusion, reliance on a digital component, decentralization, deskilling, and the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement. Simply put, these seven characteristics make emerging technologies that much more challenging to prevent mis-use. “The international community faces a continuous challenge of encouraging innovation and maximizing the benefits of such innovation with the need to mitigate the security risks posed by these new technologies. I hope the Security Council will take advantage of the Comprehensive Review of Resolution 1540, which this open debate is an important contribution to, to update the resolution to take into account the impact of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors.” There was substantial discussion regarding the strengthening of Resolution 1540, especially to consider the implications of a biological attack in light of recent outbreaks like Ebola, MERS, and SARS.  During her remarks, Ambassador Michele J. Sison, U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations, described Dr. Koblentz’s briefing as, “a very interesting, but also very sobering intervention.” Hopefully, with the focus on these evolving threats, the current review of Resolution 1540 can be further strengthened and focused to reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring WMD’s.

A Tribute to D.A. Henderson
There are few times in the history of public health that we can say we’ve eradicated a disease. D.A. Henderson, smallpox guru and disease detective, led such efforts within the WHO and his absence has been felt throughout the health community. A legend among public health and biodefense students, his dedication to the field inspired generations. As an epidemiologist, his work in both infectious diseases and bioterrorism gave me hope that such a career was not only possible, but also filled with the kind of adventure that many only dreamed about. Having just read Scourge (and I would highly encourage you to read it), the dedication to the smallpox eradication efforts is still an inspiration. After conquering what many considered impossible, Henderson worked as Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies (now UPMC Center for Health Security), and following 9/11, led the Office of Public Health Preparedness. Described as a “Sherman tank of a human being- he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way”, Henderson’s death is truly felt throughout the international community. In the wake of his death, we take a moment to truly applaud and appreciate all he’s given and inspired within global health security.

How Far Will the U.S. Luck Run?
With the anticipation and preparations for Zika having started months before it reached U.S. soil, many are wondering if our luck with infectious disease is running out. We were lucky with Ebola- a handful of cases and once we hit the panic button, we were able to overcome the crisis. Despite insufficient funds and battling diseases we had little to no experience in handling, U.S. efforts have been fortunate in their successes. Zika may be a different kind of ball game though – mosquito control efforts are flawed at best and with a disease that is often asymptomatic, we may have finally hit a wall. Did we really learn from Ebola? Have we strengthened our surveillance and response practices? Dr. Johnathan Fielding notes that “HHS must play a greater role in coordinating the global public health response through implementation of the Global Health Security Agenda, a cooperative arrangement launched in 2014 by over 50 nations, nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders; better coordination with other government agencies, and state, local and private sector partners; and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities within and among HHS offices.” We need both the monetary and personnel support to properly address the failures from Ebola, but also implement the recommendations that so many have made following the crisis. The contingency funding that has been pushed recently is an indication of our potentially faltering luck – have we reached such an impasse in which our politics will override our disease response capacity or capabilities?

A Lot of Zika Goes a Long Ways 
Palm Beach is seeing its second case of Zika virus, with active transmission continuing in Florida. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, has expressed frustration that the promised federal support of antibody tests and lab support has not been delivered. “In a teleconference on Wednesday, Scott made a plea for more support in fighting Zika, complaining that ‘Congress and the White House have not been good partners.’ Scott said he asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 5,000 Zika antibody tests last week, but so far had only received less than 1,200.” Johns Hopkins is opening the first multidisciplinary Zika center, the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Zika Center, which is dedicated to caring for affected patients. As of August 24, the CDC has reported 2,517 cases of Zika virus in the U.S. The CDC has also awarded $6.8 million to partners to help support Zika response. “This funding will help enhance surge capacity for Zika case identification and mosquito surveillance. It will also help improve communications to key populations, by developing focused educational materials, sharing mosquito control guidance, and refining community public awareness campaigns.”

Human Mobility and Epidemics
Tracking infectious disease cases is never an easy task – whether it be an asymptomatic patient, mosquito-spread disease, or global travel, epidemiology and case tracking is not for the faint of heart. An increasingly mobile population is only adding to this difficulty. The first few days of an infection with Dengue or Zika are often so mild that many don’t even seek medical care. How many times have you had a fever and it didn’t stop you from traveling or going about your day? Disease ecologists are now looking at the impact of a fever on human mobility and the shock this may have during an outbreak of a vector-borne disease. “We’ve found that people with a fever visit 30 percent fewer locations on average than those who do not have a fever, and that they spend more time closer to home. It may sound like stating the obvious, but such data have practical applications to understand how human behavior shapes epidemics,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, and senior author of the study. “No one had previously quantified how a symptom such as fever changes mobility patterns, individually and across a population, in a tropical urban setting like Iquitos.” Not surprisingly, human mobility is a huge driver for spreading these diseases in urban settings. With the ongoing spread of Zika, researchers are continuing to learn about the impact of human behavior and mobility on the spread of these mosquito-spread diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Global Reaches of Antibiotic Resistance – Check out my latest comments on the global implications of antibiotic resistance for first responders and security personnel. It’s a topic we’ve so frequently cited as an international health emergency, and yet it gets so little attention. In this article, I point to the obvious implications, but also the worries that dual-use technologies of concern and genetic modification could allow for increased resistance for a more sinister reason.
  • South Sudan Crisis Calls for Additional WHO Surveillance  – the continued chaos and violence in South Sudan has translated into the WHO ramping up disease surveillance efforts. More than 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDP) have been caught in the conflict, leaving the region more susceptible to malaria and diarrheal illnesses. “The conflict has exacerbated existing challenges with the health system and disease surveillance,” Dr Usman says. “With so many health workers and partners moving to safety, data is more difficult to collect and challenges have emerged as humanitarian access remains limited.” The WHO is coordinating with the Ministry of Health to strengthen surveillance efforts to help detect and respond to outbreaks.
  • FBI WMD Directorate Marks 10 Years – A program we’d rather have and not need than need and not have, the WMD Directorate within the FBI has been imagining worst-case scenarios for over a decade to better prepare and protect the U.S. “The Directorate has three sections: countermeasures, investigations and operations, and intelligence. In its first five years, the Directorate established itself as a central hub for WMD subject-matter expertise.” Assistant Director, John Perren, notes that while they’re intelligence driven, the things that keep him up at night aren’t what he knows, but what he doesn’t know.

Pandora Report 2.12.2016

This week we saw a lot of movement on the Zika response front – from increased funding to research teams prepping for field work, the outbreak hype is picking up traction as the horrors of Ebola are still fresh. Natural outbreaks aren’t the only thing drawing concern this week, as James Clapper, Director of US National Intelligence, added gene editing to the list of dangers posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.” The annual worldwide threat assessment report stated that, “research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products,”. Good news for hospital preparedness, the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and the CDC have announced continued funding for the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP). The HPP supports critical healthcare preparedness efforts in order to reduce the “supplemental state and federal resources during emergencies, and enables rapid recovery.” If you’re trying to work some biodefense into your Valentine’s Day, you’ve got a few options via Jane Austen-inspired zombie adventures in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or episodes of The Walking Dead. Whichever zombie adventure you choose, just remember to avoid cuddling with any armadillos (read on to find out why). Happy Friday!

Lassa Fever Outbreak Grows
The Lassa fever outbreak that began hitting Nigeria in August 2015 has continued to spread, worrying many health officials. 101 people have already died from the infection and roughly 175 people have become infected. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) stated, “As of today, 19 [including Abuja] states are currently following up contacts, or have suspected cases with laboratory results pending or laboratory confirmed cases.” Annually, Lassa fever causes 100,000-300,000 infections and 5,000 deaths in west Africa. Nigeria’s neighbor, Benin, is also seeing an increase in cases, in which seventeen have died and fifty have been infected.

Back Down the Zika Rabbit Hole
In response to the growing threat of Zika virus, the Obama administration announced on Monday that it would formally be requesting an emergency funding of $1.8 billion to combat the outbreak. The Department of Health and Human Services (including the CDC) would obtain the majority of the funds ($1.48 billion). CDC efforts will be ramped up as its emergency operations center was moved to a level 1 (the highest level) and teams are being coordinated to study the microcephaly-infection links. You can also check out the White House press release here. The WHO will be working to prioritize and fast-track research and development projects, of which Zika virus will be included. You can also find a great timeline here. According to the CDC, as of February 3, 2016, there were 35 travel-associated cases in the US. The Lancet also just released this piece discussing the labeling of Zika virus as a public health issue of concern.  On February 16, 2016, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are holding a workshop on research priorities to inform public health and medical practice for domestic Zika virus cases.

ASM-BiodefenseScreen Shot 2016-02-10 at 11.49.22 PM 
The 2016 American Society for Microbiology Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting took place this week in Arlington, VA. For a biodefense fan, this was a pretty amazing three-day experience. Conference attendees were treated to presentations on antimicrobial resistance, applied biodefense, medical countermeasure developments, agroterrorism, and much more. Did I mention the keynote speaker was Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC? I’m not even a little ashamed to admit how great it was to see Dr. Frieden emphasize that “nature is unpredictable but what is predictable is that we can be better prepared.” He also noted that “Zika is a rapidly changing situation” and the CDC would be sending a team within the next week to start a case-control study related to infection and microcephaly. Some highlights included getting to listen to Dr. Raymond Zilinskas discuss Russian biodefense efforts and how CBR training exercises increased in 2015. Dr. Jens Kuhn from the NIH wins the award for most humor during his fascinating presentation on Marburg and Ebola research within the Soviet bioweapons program. The infection preventionist in me greatly appreciated the session on antibiotic resistance and the role of medical tourism as an exposure for patients to CRE, not to mention how travel assists global clonal expansion. The Mayo Clinic’s Dr Tosh pointed out the short term (isolation of patients, hand hygiene, etc.), medium term (new microbial therapeutics, new diagnostics, etc.), and long term (specific pathogen therapy, decolonization, and immunologic therapy) response and control mechanisms for drug resistance. Last but not least, one of the biggest objectives from the applied biodefense presentations was the need for scientists to help inform policymakers about their work to drive the best policies. I would highly encourage anyone interested in the biodefense field to attend future conferences, as it was a wonderful learning experience and the poster/exhibitor sessions were an excellent way to learn about new research and network.

Lessons Learned: Using North Korea’s History to Better Understand Iran’s Nuclear Program
GMU biodefense professors, Dr. Thrall and Dr. Koblentz, discuss the use of North Korean nuclear history as a teaching tool regarding Iran’s nuclear program. By comparing and contrasting these two countries and their propensity for nuclear weapons, they look to similarities like the fact that both countries “are located in historically dangerous neighborhoods and face militarily superior adversaries. In North Korea’s case, South Korea and the United States; in Iran’s case, a Middle East full of Sunni Arabs and a nuclear-armed Israel. From a national security perspective, both countries have obvious reasons for pursuing a nuclear capability.” Given that both countries tend to be immune towards coercion, continued engagement and confrontation is vital. Using North Korea as a model for behavior, vigilant deterrence will be necessary to prevent Iran from cheating on the nuclear deal.

Managing Emerging Health Security Threats Since 9/11: The Role of Intelligence
Dr. Patrick F. Walsh, Associate Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at Charles Sturt University in Australia, discusses the role of intelligence throughout the evolution of biosecurity since the 9/11 attacks. Dr. Walsh calls attention to the difficulties in defining biosecurity and that “cross-disciplinary focus is both a strength and weakness to understanding biosecurity threats. It is a weakness in that the presence of multiple players in the biosecurity field can result in a more fragmented understanding and operational response to various biosecurity threats. But it is also a strength in that, if intelligence systems are optimal, a multi-disciplinary approach allows a combination of expertise to assess and manage the bio-threat or risk.” Dr. Walsh presents the role of dual-use research, stolen biological agents, and the growing concern among biosecurity regulators and national security intelligence groups regarding the dwindling role of tacit knowledge and availability of equipment and technology. Dr. Walsh points out that the character of intelligence varies depending on the issue and one must account for the role of decision making. Lastly, he reminds us that “to conceptualize the role of intelligence in improving early warning of biosecurity threats is to examine how it can provide warning through various stages of the intelligence cycle, which includes the following stages—direction, collection, analysis, and dissemination.” While the role of intelligence will continue to evolve with biosecurity threats, Dr. Walsh emphasizes that strategic early warning capabilities are dependent upon the efficacy of intelligence framework. Improving these two facets of biodefense will allow critical infrastructure to not only respond to threats of bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases, but also the growing threats of microbial resistance and dual-use research. You can also find the article here (2016 Walsh Health Security and Intelligence Jan).

Biosecurity in the Age of Big Data: A Conversation with the FBI
Advances in life science and technology can solve many health issues, but they can also pose a threat if used within the wrong context. Dual-use research of concern, CRISPR, and biotechnologies have led to some remarkable revolutionary advances, however, where do these fit within the FBI’s security concerns for bioweapons? Keith Kozminski of Molecular Biology of the Cell met with FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) and head of the Biological Countermeasures Unit at their Washington, DC headquarters, Edward You, to discuss the security implications of Big Data. SSA You detailed his work with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute to identify the security issues associated with Big Data when it comes to biology. Whether collaborating with companies like Amazon and IBM or government agencies like the CDC, SSA You has worked to identify potential vulnerabilities and how they can be addressed without halting innovation. SSA You states that “Over the last two years, we have had the issues with regard to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Defense (DoD). A lot of discussion also came when the J. Craig Venter Institute synthesized that bacterial genome. There were a lot of calls and discussions about the scientific community needing more ethics training and the need to develop a greater culture of responsibility. From a law enforcement perspective those are necessary but not sufficient. What has been lacking is the scientific community being provided security awareness—something that augments how they approach the life sciences.” While there are vulnerabilities across the board, SSA You emphasized the need for partnership between biologists and WMD coordinators to not only safeguard science, but reduce threats.

UN- Protecting Humanity from Future Health Crises: Report of the High-level on the Global Response to Health Crises 
The UN has released an advanced copy of their report regarding global health safety. Highlighting the efforts and failures within the Ebola outbreak, this report emphasizes the global burden of communicable diseases and how better response and preparedness is needed. The report points out that only a third of the 196 State Parties have fully implemented the International Health Regulations (IHR, 2005) and there has been little global investment in R&D for emerging infectious diseases. 27 recommendations were made to address issues at the national, regional, and international levels, of which one of the first was for the WHO to build a new Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. The report also states that “all countries must meet the full obligations of the IHR” and “appropriate financing is required. Assistance should be provided to countries requiring additional support for IHR compliance, while WHO and the new Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response must be resourced to meet global needs.” Overall, the use of the 2014 Ebola outbreak as a case study for health security recommendations echoes the sentiment that Dr. Frieden once noted– “a disease outbreak somewhere is a risk anywhere”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Vaccines & Therapeutic Conference– Mark your calendars for the 14th annual conference from May 17-19, 2016, in Washington DC, that covers biodefense, antimicrobial resistance, and emerging infectious diseases. Given the recent push for emergency funding for Zika virus research, this conference will be a great resource for up and coming research.
  • Quality Training for BSL-4 Biocontainment Laboratories– Interested in BSL-4 lab training? The FDA and University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston National Medical Branch, will host training April 25-29, 2016. Held in Bethesda, MD, the course will include faculty and subject matter experts from the FDA, academia, and more.
  • Leprosy Spike in Florida– Florida has seen an increase in leprosy cases this year. Five cases have been reported in 2016 so far and 27 were reported in 2015. The spike in cases is suspected to be a result of armadillo transmission. If you find yourself traveling in Florida, you may want to avoid armadillo cuddling.