Pandora Report: 1.13.2023

Happy Friday! This week we cover DoD’s upcoming chem-bio defense changes, a recent accelerated preview from researchers at Boston University’s NEIDL, the arrest of an Iranian man in Germany on suspicion of planning an attack using ricin and cyanide, and more. We also include several new publications and podcasts, including our own Dr. Saskia Popescu’s piece about her experience catching COVID-19 as an epidemiologist working in infection prevention. We also have new events listed, including an upcoming Schar School graduate open house where you can learn more about the Biodefense Graduate Program. Stay safe and enjoy the MLK Day weekend!

Pentagon to Overhaul Chem-Bio Defense Despite Budget Trimming

Amid anticipation of the release of its first biodefense posture review, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced this week it is overhauling its approach to countering chemical and biological weapons. In a new document, “Approach for Research, Development and Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures and Test Products,” the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense explains that the Chemical and Biological Defense Program will expand the foci of its medical countermeasure development efforts. According to Politico, rather than continuing to focus on developing countermeasures for a specific list of threat agents, “Officials are launching a new plan to develop medical treatments, vaccines and personal protective equipment that can adapt to a range of evolving biological and chemical threats, said Ian Watson, DoD’s deputy assistant secretary for chemical and biological defense.”

Politico continued, quoting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense Ian Watson-“U.S. officials are particularly concerned about adversaries that already have advanced chemical and biological capabilities and have proven themselves willing to use them. Russia and China now have the technology necessary both to tweak current threats — from toxins to naturally occurring pathogens — to make them more deadly and to create new weapons, Watson said.”

“U.S. Sailors and Marines, assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), take part in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) mass casualty drill on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) East China Sea, Oct. 22, 2018. Wasp, flagship of Wasp Amphibious Ready Group, with embarked 31st MEU, is operating in the Indo-Pacific region to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force for any type of contingency. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker)

The same article referenced Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, explaining “Gregory Koblentz…said the decision by the administration to look more holistically at chemical and biological threats is a strategic national security decision — one that could help the U.S. keep pace with countries such as China, Russia and Iran.” Koblentz was quoted later, saying “There’s definitely a much higher kind of salience and appreciation of how nation-states are using these technologies,” Koblentz said. “Until fairly recently, the focus has mostly been on ISIS and Al Qaeda using chemical and biological terrorism. This [strategy] might be another kind of paradigm shift.”

However, this announcement comes amid cuts to DoD’s chem-bio program funding overall. Roll Call reported recently that the nearly $2 billion in funding dedicated to all these programs will be cut by about $126 million, even in light of their comparatively slow growth and concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the Chemical Biological Defense Program received $1.26 billion in appropriations in the last omnibus spending bill-$66 million less than was requested.

Roll Call discussed these funding concerns with Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs under President Obama, and David Lasseter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction under President Trump and a visiting fellow at George Mason’s National Security Institute. Both indicated the funding for these programs needs to more than double, with Lasseter saying “Increasing the current investment to around $3 billion per year, while ensuring efficient and effective program execution, will enable the CBDP to develop cutting-edge capabilities like rapid, ruggedized point-of-care diagnostics, stand-off detection, predictive wearables, advanced protective suits and innovative platform technologies as well as stock and replenish existing medical countermeasures.”

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Check out this recent post from George Mason University about a Mason research team’s work to help USAMRIID find broad-spectrum therapeutics for to treat HFV infections-“Mason Collaboration Receives $3.2 million to Help Military Personnel Combat Hemorrhagic Diseases”

Months After Firestorm Surrounding SARS-CoV-2 Experiments, NEIDL Publishes Article on BA.1 Attenuation

In late October, news and social media were full of debate regarding a preprint authored by researchers at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. As Science explained at the time of the controversy, “They took the gene for Omicron’s surface protein, or spike protein, which SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells and added it to the genome of a “backbone” virus—a variant of SARS-CoV-2 from Washington state that was identified soon after the pandemic first emerged in Wuhan, China, in early 2020. The objective was to tease apart whether Omicron’s spike protein explains why it is less pathogenic (meaning it causes less severe disease). The answer could lead to improved COVID-19 diagnostic tests and better ways to manage the disease, the preprint authors say.” As there had been no approval from NIAID, debates swirled over the benefits and safety of the research, and if it violated rules on NIH-funded gain of function (GoF) studies.

Now the same team has published an article that is available for accelerated preview in Nature, again attracting attention and sparking debate. This comes amid broader debates about risky research, including GoF research itself and calls to broaden definitions of what kinds of experiments require special reviews and safety measures. In April last year, Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz delivered a statement addressing this topic to the NIH, highlighting the problems the term “gain of function” has brought in policy debates. In his remarks regarding the Department of Health and Human Services Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens, Koblentz said “The first positive aspect of the Framework is that it does not use the term “gain of function.” The introduction of this term into the discussions on dual-use research in 2011-2012 triggered a long and unproductive debate about how to define this category of research. Carving out “gain of function” as somehow distinct or separate from dual-use research muddied the debate and continues to cause confusion today.”

This topic recently garnered attention again as the omnibus appropriations bill progressed through Congress before being signed into law by President Biden. As we discussed last week, the new legislation also takes aim at GoF research, after GOP lawmakers pushed the administration to halt federally-funded GoF research, citing beliefs that such research is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. On page 3,354 of the more than 4,100 page bill, it reads, “(1) IN GENERAL.—Beginning not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall not fund research conducted by a foreign entity at a facility located in a country of concern, in the estimation of the Director of National Intelligence or the head of another relevant Federal department or agency, as appropriate, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, involving pathogens of pandemic potential or biological agents or toxins listed pursuant to section 351A(a)(1) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 262a(a)(1)).” It also requires the Office of Science and Technology Policy to review and update federal policy on potential pandemic pathogen research.

German Police Detain Iranian Man Accused of Plotting Attack, Acquiring Cyanide and Ricin

This week, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reported that German police arrested a 32-year-old Iranian man on suspicion of planning an attack motivated by Islamic extremism. Police wearing protective gear entered the man’s apartment in Castrop-Rauxel, northwest of Dortmund, late Saturday night. According to Herbert Reul, State Minister for Internal Affairs, the police acted on a “serious tip” that prompted them to respond the very night they received it. News reports indicate that an allied intelligence service alerted Germany that the man was planning an attack. Though he is thought to have acquired cyanide and ricin, it is unclear how developed his plan was. However, Düsseldorf prosecutors later told DPA that “no toxic substances” were found in the initial search of the apartment.

Outgoing Eskom CEO Survives Cyanide Poisoning

Andre de Ruyter, the outgoing CEO of Eskom-South Africa’s state-owned electricity company-, reportedly survived an attempt to poison him with cyanide last month. De Ruyter, who will step down in March, fell ill after he was served a cup of coffee laced with the agent on December 12. According to Insider, “After drinking the coffee, De Ruyter became “weak, dizzy, and confused,” EE Business Intelligence reported, citing an unnamed source. He was shaking, vomiting, and eventually collapsed, the source said. The Financial Times reported sources as saying that De Ruyter was nauseous and became confused after the drinking the coffee. According to the FT, the coffee machine at Eskom’s office was out of order at the time of the incident, and he was served a coffee from a different source.”

The same news report also explained that, “Since taking over as CEO of Eskom, De Ruyter has attempted to crack down on corruption within South Africa’s energy sector, EE Business Intelligence reported. He has, however, also clashed with the country’s government, and in December, Eskom was accused of “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state” by South Africa’s energy minister Gwede Mantashe.”

Prison Colony Where Alexei Navalny is Held Suffers Flu Outbreak

Alexei Navalny, the prominent Putin critic who survived an attempted poisoning in 2020, is reportedly in worsening health amid a flu outbreak in the colony he is held in east of Moscow. Navalny claims that prison authorities intentionally placed a man sick with influenza next to him as a “bacteriological weapon,” and that he has been denied basic medications despite suffering a fever and cough. Last month, Navalny said he suffers from worsening back pain from long periods of time spent in the colony’s punishment cell and that he has been injected with multiple unknown drugs. He has also Tweeted through his lawyers that the authorities intentionally moved a mentally unstable man who howls at night into a cell near him.

Though his current symptoms are not life-threatening, there is speculation that this could be part of a deliberate attempt to make Navalny, Putin’s most out-spoken domestic supporter, die from natural causes. The Schar School’s Dr. Mark N. Katz, an expert on Russia, told Newsweek “”If Putin had wanted Navalny dead, he could have easily arranged for this.” He added “Putin may think he’ll be better off if Navalny dies from illness than directly at the hand of the state.” Russia denies any role in the 2020 attack against Navalny, which used a Novichok agent, a group of nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union. Navalny is currently serving an 11.5 year prison sentence on trumped up charges supporters say were created to silence him.

“Understanding Biosafety and Biosecurity in Ukraine”

Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser, Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London recently published this piece in Health Security. Their abstract reads: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was accompanied by unfounded Russian allegations of bioweapon activities in Ukraine conducted by the United States and its allies. While false, such allegations can cause substantial damage to disarmament efforts and international cooperation for strengthening disease surveillance and global health security. The purpose of this article is to describe Ukraine’s biosafety, biosecurity, and dual-use policies and to provide important context for understanding the unwarranted Russian allegations. Moreover, the analysis of Ukraine’s biorisk management system highlights some of the international efforts underway to ensure that life sciences research across the world is conducted safely, securely, and responsibly. With the help of international partners, Ukraine has strengthened its biorisk management governance, as well as identified areas for improvement that it is working to address.”

“When the Infection Prevention Epidemiologist Gets COVID-19”

In this piece for Infection Prevention Today, Biodefense PhD Program alumna and current Schar School Assistant Professor, Dr. Saskia Popescu, discusses what it was like to catch COVID-19 in late 2022 as someone working in infection prevention. She offers insights into the pressures and guilt that many professionals have grappled with throughout this pandemic, writing “Safety isn’t binary, but rather a spectrum of risk and choice, and ultimately, it’s important to consider those individuals around us. I wish I would have been more vigilant in masking but am grateful I had the resources and capacity to mask and isolate appropriately when symptoms began. A friend recently joked that I had lost my street “cred” as an infection preventionist, which was both comical and a bit eye-opening. Mostly, it highlights much of the guilt or even shame many of us experience when we feel as if we’ve failed at the very thing we specialize in. I still beat myself up at times for getting COVID-19 and knowing better as an infectious disease specialist, but I also don’t want to associate any sense of shame with an infectious disease. We have all learned lessons during this pandemic, and a sustainable approach to COVID-19 will likely be one of the most important in the greater context of public health and infectious disease response.”

“Building the CDC the Country Needs”

The Center for Strategic & International Studies recently published this report by Drs. J. Stephen Morrison and Tom Inglesby discussing the current state of CDC and the findings of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security’s review of the agency. They explain, “This CSIS report enumerates the essential, concrete, near-term steps that will return CDC to a pathway of high performance: clarifying and better integrating CDC’s core domestic and global missions; enhancing CDC’s leadership and transparency by bolstering its communications and federal engagement capacities; creating a much stronger competency in Washington; and bolstering its operational and surge capabilities through updated frontline engagement, workforce development, data analysis, and budget flexibility. Across all reforms, greater attention to equity and accountability will be essential.”

“The Global Risks Report 2023”

In the 18th edition of the Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum discusses the findings of the latest Global Risks Perception Survey. The report addresses current crises, risks that are likely to be severe in the next decade, and mid-term future challenges centered around natural resource shortages. It finds that the cost of living will continue to dominate global risks in the next two years while failure to mitigate climate change will be the defining issue of the next decade, leading a formidable list that includes other issues like geoeconomic confrontation and widespread cybercrime and cyber insecurity.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

The BWC Global Forum: Biotech, Biosecurity & Beyond

This podcast series from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security aims to “…support BWC States Parties, policymakers and policy experts, and scientists understand advancements in biology and biotechnology and their impact on the Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC).” Currently, episodes include “De-Extinction Technologies”, “Human Genome Editing”, and “Wastewater Surveillance”. Learn more and listen here.

The Retort Episode 7-Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons

In this latest episode of the Retort, the University of Bath’s Dr. Brett Edwards discusses toxin and bioregulator weapons with Drs. Lijun Shang and Malcolm Dando. Check it out here.

George Mason Arlington Graduate Open House

Join us for the Graduate Open House on Thursday, January 19, from 5-7 p.m. on George Mason University’s Arlington Campus to learn more about the Biodefense Program and 40+ other programs from the Schar School of Policy and Government, the School of Business, and the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. At the in-person event, explore your graduate school options, connect with our representatives, and find out where a Mason graduate degree can take you next. Come early and work on your application with us! A computer lab is reserved starting at 4:30 p.m. for you to start your application and staff members will be on hand to answer your questions. Register today!

Opportunities, Threats and Proliferation Challenges Deriving from Bio-Technology and Bio-Engineering

“The International Affairs Institute (IAI) of Rome and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non Proliferation (VCDNP) cordially invite you to attend the next Young Women and Next Generation Initiative (YWNGI) public webinar event entitled: “Opportunities, Threats and Proliferation Challenges deriving from Bio-Technology and Bio-Engineering” which will be held on 16th January 2023 from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. Central European Time (CET) via Zoom.

The webinar will feature remarks by Dr Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non Proliferation (VCDNP); Dr Filippa Lentzos, Associate Professor in Science & International Security at King’s College London; and Dr James Revill, Head of the WMD and Space Security Programmes at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).” Learn more and register here.

Wastewater-Based Disease Surveillance for Public Health Action

“The National Academies’ Water Science and Technology Board and Health and Medicine Division invite you to a public release webinar of “Wastewater-Based Disease Surveillance for Public Health Action,” on Thursday, January 19, 2023 from 2-3 p.m. ET. The report explains how community-based wastewater disease surveillance has been useful during the COVID-19 pandemic in helping to inform important public health decisions. It also examines the value of wastewater surveillance applications for other infectious diseases, and presents a vision for the future of wastewater surveillance on a national scale.” Learn more and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

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

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “In 1980, a Frenchman entered a cave while visiting Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya. A week later he became seriously ill, eventually dying in a Nairobi hospital. Which cave did he enter and what disease killed him?”

Shout out to Stephen M. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Before perpetrating the infamous Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, this Japanese cult attempted to disseminate botulinum neurotoxin and Bacillus anthracis, among other agents. What was the name of this cult prior to its split/name change in 2007?” is Aum Shinryko.

Pandora Report 10.9.15

Happy Friday! Since we’ve made it through Hurricane Joaquin, let’s celebrate with some biodefense news by way of air defense, Ebola, some amazing original work from the GMU Biodefense clan, and all the fun in between. Fun fact: On October 8, 2001, President George W. Bush established the Office of Homeland Security. Let’s start your weekend off right with some zombies, shall we?

Zombies & Air Defense?
With Halloween around the corner and The Walking Dead about to premiere, it’s time for some zombies – Pentagon style! Ever heard of JLENS? This $2.7 billion radar blimp was initially designed to act as an early warning system for low-flying weapons, drones, etc. Unfortunately, this system has been plagued with problems (pun intended) as it failed to detect the low-flying aircraft piloted by Florida postal worker, Douglas Hughes. We’ll let that slide since JLENS wasn’t deemed operational that day but that hasn’t stopped many from calling it a “zombie” program, meaning it’s “costly, ineffectual, and seemingly impossible to kill”. Check out the LA Times investigation into whether this defense technology is really “performing well right now” as claimed by Raytheon.

2016 Presidential Candidates on Nonproliferation- Part I

GMU’s Greg Mercer has churned out another fascinating commentary in a new series related to what 2016 presidential candidates are saying about nonproliferation. His series will pull together candidate stances and comments to take an in-depth look into the role nonproliferation is taking in this race. Greg notes, “Lucky for us though, there’s been a major nonproliferation news event to drive the foreign policy debate: the Iran nuclear deal.  So this is a rundown of what’s been said and being said about nonproliferation and WMD policy in the 2016 election.” This week we’ll be looking at the Republican Party, so make sure to check in over the next few months to see how everyone’s stance has changed or strengthened.

Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever Spike in Pakistan
Pakistan is currently seeing a spike in their cases of CCHF with the most recent death of a patient in Quetta at the Fatima Jinnah Chest and General Hospital. The death toll is now 3 in 3 days and a total of 15 patient mortalities this year. There are 9 other CCHF patients under observation and treatment at the regional hospitals. The WHO’s Diseases Early Warning System (DEWS) in Pakistan tracks these seasonal spikes in hopes to also prevent its spread. The concerning aspect is the high amount of deaths this year so far when compared to other years.

Iran’s Shifting Preference?
How lucky are we to have two amazing GMU Biodefense commentaries this week? Scott McAlister is discussing the Iranian nuclear deal and the potential consequences. He hammers out a topic we biodefense folks are all too familiar with – dual-use and the hiding-in-plain-sight reality of so many programs. Scott points out that, “the scary thing about biological and chemical weapons programs is their ability to hide in plain sight.  Due the dual use of much of today’s biotechnological advancements, an offensive weapons program can be disguised as a facility to create vaccines or research centers for diseases with minimal effort.” Take a look at his notes on nuclear weapon capabilities and Iranian perspective on biological weapons.

Tacit Knowledge & Biological Weapons Proliferation
On a scale of 1-10, having your research cited during a meeting of the State Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons, is pretty much a 12. What can we say, GMU Biodefense professor, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, did just that! At the meeting of experts in August, the State parties met to discuss the field of science and technology while emphasizing tacit  knowledge in relation to bioweapon proliferation. When discussing tacit knowledge, the U.S. noted at the conference, “the concept of communal or collective tacit knowledge has been explored extensively, particularly in the work of Donald Mackenzie and Graham Spinardi, who examined its role in the context of nuclear weapons creation, and Kathleen Vogel and Sonia Ben Ouagrham- Gormley, who examined it with respect to biological weapons creation.” During this meeting, the role and relevance of tacit knowledge as a risk modulator was heavily discussed, pointing to its corresponding role of increasing the risk of bioweapon proliferation.

Bioweapons for Dummies?
Speaking of tacit knowledge and the rise of the biotechnology revolution… Zian Liu from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists goes through the five steps of building a biological weapon to address the barriers to weaponization. Broaching the topic of “biohacking”, Zian points to the concern within the biodefense industry related to synthetic biology and fourth generation bioweapons. From ordering the synthetic genes to recently published research that discusses the developments of genetic modification, this commentary hits on the very real barriers that a fourth-year bioengeneering undergraduate student identifies -even with the available tools. Between the need for increased regulations on synthetic DNA and the dual-use concerns, Zian notes that “novice biologists are not likely to construct advanced weapons any time soon.”

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Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Guinea outbreak region goes a full week without a new Ebola case! We’re all holding our breaths in hope this means the outbreak is nearing an end in this hard-hit region. Sierra Leone has reached 3 weeks (a full incubation period) of no new cases and the last healthcare worker infection was back in August. The WHO and local public health workers are still maintaining door-to-door case finding efforts and contact tracing.
  • PPD Awarded Contracts with US Army & BARDA – Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD) was just awarded two US government contracts to address health outcomes in armed forces and test the efficacy of the national strategic stockpile’s supply of avian influenza vaccine.
  • Findings of the 7th WHO Ebola Emergency Committee Meeting – Last week this committee met to discuss the ongoing outbreak in West Africa. They provided updates and furthering advisement regarding the disease and international travel as 34 countries “continue to enact measures that are disproportionate to the risks posed.”

Iran’s Shifting Preference?

By Scott McAlister

With the possible passage of the Iranian nuclear deal looming, it is important to look to possible consequences of the deal.  By taking away Iran’s ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon in the near future, how does that affect their overall desire to possess weapons of mass destruction?  In the world of WMD’s, the big three are nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.  It can be argued that nuclear weapons are far above the other two, as they are the only one to cause enormous amounts of damage to a victim’s infrastructure and population.  It is true, a biological or chemical weapons attack isn’t going to take down buildings or level cities, but does that mean they don’t deserve to be feared?  Biological weapons can introduce susceptible populations to deadly pathogens, and can cause mass hysteria when released.  Biological weapons programs are also much easier to hide.  While having a nuclear reactor isn’t a dead give away for building a nuclear bomb, if you are enriching uranium past a certain point, it might send up some red flags (normal enrichment for energy is 3-5%, weapons grade is above 75%, records show Iran had enriched uranium past 20%.)  The scary thing about biological and chemical weapons programs is their ability to hide in plain sight.  Due the dual use of much of today’s biotechnological advancements, an offensive weapons program can be disguised as a facility to create vaccines or research centers for diseases with minimal effort.

This brings us to Iran.  If the deal passes, Iran will realistically be unable to produce a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 years, loosing a vast majority of its nuclear fuel, decommissioning a majority of its centrifuges, and subjected to thorough inspections.  The question now is, does their inability to produce a nuclear weapon influence them to switch routes and invest in an offensive biological weapons program?  While some hold that nuclear weapons are a class above biological and chemical weapons, to others it’s the notion of possessing a WMD of any form that holds clout.  Does Iran view biological weapons as an equally effective way to convey their message to the outside world? Continue reading “Iran’s Shifting Preference?”

Pandora Report 7.19.15

An out of town visitor and a newly rescued pet have kept me very busy this week. Luckily, the news was very straightforward—the nuclear deal with Iran and ISIS with their chemical weapons. We’ve even got a few stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

A Historic Deal to Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon

After two years in the making, the P5+1 settled negotiations to reach a comprehensive, long-term nuclear deal with Iran this week. Despite satisfaction with the outcome, many say that the deal will not end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and will not change Iranian policy towards the USDick Cheney responded that the deal makes use of nuclear weapons use more likely and former Senator Jim Webb said the deal weighs in Iran’s favor. Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems pleased with the deal and will work on its passage.

DipNote—“President Obama said “I am confident that this deal will meet the national security interests of the United States and our allies. So I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal. We do not have to accept an inevitable spiral into conflict. And we certainly shouldn’t seek it.’”

ISIS Has Fired Chemical Mortar Shells, Evidence Indicates

It seems like déjà vu all over again as reports this week said that the Islamic State appears to have manufactured rudimentary chemical weapons and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria, evidently multiple times in multiple weeks. Investigators reported that the incidents seemed to involve toxic industrial or agricultural chemicals repurposed as weapons. This could signal “a potential escalation of the group’s capabilities” though, is not without precedent.

The New York Times—“In the clearest recent incident, a 120-millimeter chemical mortar shell struck sandbag fortifications at a Kurdish military position near Mosul Dam on June 21 or 22, the investigators said, and caused several Kurdish fighters near where it landed to become ill.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 Image Credit: U.S. Department of State

New From The Biodefense Faculty

On this #FacultyFriday, we’ve got recent publications from two George Mason Biodefense faculty members.

Dr. Gregory Koblentz looks at America’s next big nuclear challenge from Iran.

The April 2 framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran fails to address an important risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Through a combination of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities and facilities and more intrusive verification mechanisms, the framework adequately addresses two major risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program—breakout and sneakout. The framework, however, completely ignores the risk of leakout: the proliferation of nuclear technology and expertise from Iran to other countries. Iran, once the recipient of foreign nuclear assistance, is now poised to provide that assistance, either deliberately or through unauthorized acts by scientists or companies, to other countries.

His entire piece in The National Interest can be found here.

Dr. Trevor Thrall (and Pandora Report staff writer Erik Goepner) make the case against ground engagement with the Islamic State.

The most common argument made by hawks for U.S. engagement is to prevent future Islamic State-sponsored terrorism against the U.S. homeland. Our track record on homeland security since 9/11, however, reveals that a ground war is unnecessary. In the 13 years before 9/11, Islamist-inspired groups launched five attacks on U.S. soil. In the same period since 9/11, just four attacks have been carried out in the U.S. despite the rapid rise in Islamist mobilization and growth in global terrorism. From 2000 to 2013, the number of Islamic-inspired terrorist groups on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations spiked 185 percent, while the estimated number of Islamist fighters rose 243 percent. Clearly, the United States’ success at limiting attacks on its homeland has come not from destroying terrorist groups abroad, but through improved intelligence and other homeland security-focused efforts.

Their piece in The Detroit News can be found here.

Pandora Report 4.5.15

I love when the stories find me, so we’ve got some big ones this week including the nuclear deal with Iran and the arrival of multi-drug resistant Shigella in the United States. We’ve also got an Ebola update and other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy your (Easter) Sunday, have a great week and see you back here next weekend!

An Iran Nuclear Deal Built on Coffee, All-Nighters and Compromise

For months—many, many, months—there has been discussion of potential for Iranian nuclear weapons and what the U.S. planned to do about it. This week, those questions were finally answered as a nuclear agreement between American and Iranian officials was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland.

New York Times—“The agreement calls for Tehran to slash its stockpile of nuclear materials and severely limit its enrichment activities, theoretically bringing the time it would take to produce a nuclear weapon to a year — a significant rollback from the current estimate of two to three months.

Both sides made significant compromises. For the United States, that meant accepting that Iran would retain its nuclear infrastructure in some shrunken form. For Iran, it meant severe limits on its production facilities and submitting to what Mr. Obama has called the most intrusive inspections regime in history.”

Drug-Resistant Food Poisoning Lands in the U.S.

Before I travelled to China in 2012, my doctor prescribed me ciprofloxacin. It was, in his opinion, almost guaranteed I would come into contact with some sort of bacteria that would result in the dreaded “travel tummy.” Now, Cipro-resistant Shigella (a bacterial infection of the intestines) is becoming a growing problem in Asia and around the world. Over the past year, the resistant strain has shown up in 32 U.S. states and was linked with international travel to India, the Dominican Republic, and Morocco. However, in many instances, people who got sick hadn’t travelled outside the U.S. meaning the strain has already started to circulate unrelated to international travel. This could be a real problem.

NPR—“‘If rates of resistance become this high, in more places, we’ll have very few options left for treating Shigella with antibiotics by mouth,” says epidemiologist Anna Bowen, who led the study. Then doctors will have to resort to IV antibiotics.

Shigella is incredibly contagious. It spreads through contaminated food and water. “As few as 10 germs can cause an infection,” Bowen says. “That’s much less than some other diarrhea-causing germs.’”

This Week in Ebola

It’s been awhile since we’ve had an Ebola update, which should mostly be interpreted as a good sign. And there are good signs, like the two experimental trials of Ebola vaccine candidates have proven to be both safe and effective. However, during a three-day countrywide shutdown in Sierra Leone, 10 new cases of Ebola were found. The good news is that there were not hundreds of hidden cases, as some feared, and the Head of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Response has said the small figures indicate that the country is now at the “tail end” of the epidemic. If things are going relatively well in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ebola still remains entrenched in Guinea. This week Guinea closed its border with Sierra Leone as an effort to stamp out the virus. Even those who aren’t sick, or have recovered, must still deal with the after effects of the disease. This week, the Liberian government recommended that all Ebola survivors practice “safe sex indefinitely” until more information can be collected on the length of time the virus may remain present in bodily fluids. All these stories should serve as a reminder that even though Ebola may not be as present in the news, the disease is still affecting people around the world.

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Image Credit: Zeynel Cebeci

Fighting the Islamic State: U.S. Objectives

By Erik Goepner

Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL,” said President Obama during his national address on 10 September 2014. Since then, the destruction of the Islamic State has been echoed as an American objective by senior leaders across the executive branch.

Such an absolute and mammoth objective towards IS, while for years the U.S. has sought reconciliation and reintegration with much of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Destroy IS, and inadvertently relieve much of the pressure against Assad, a despot who has presided over a state in which 200,000 have been killed? Is the threat from IS so severe that they must rise to the top of America’s targeting list?

A compelling argument for such an all-encompassing national priority might have been expected during the President’s national address in September. Not so. Instead, he noted the threat IS poses to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East—including American citizens, personnel and facilities located there. Quite likely, that is why part of the American Embassy staff in Iraq was evacuated in June 2014, as also occurred in Yemen, South Sudan, and Libya last year. And the threat to Americans in America? “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” offered the President.

Two months later, the White House repeated a similar threat assessment. Their fact sheet said IS “could pose a growing threat to the United States and others beyond the region.” The fact sheet also noted that IS posed an immediate threat to Iraq, Syria and U.S. allies throughout the region, as did numerous other groups per a State Department travel warning.

So, America will send 3,100 military members and spend $5.6 billion this year in an effort to destroy a group that could pose a threat beyond the Middle East?

That Iran and Syria will likely benefit if we succeed in destroying IS makes the U.S. choice of objectives all the more confusing. Both countries are on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism—since 1979 for Syria and 1984 for Iran. One of the most lethal killers of American service members in Iraq was the explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) provided by Iran.

At the UN, two years ago, the President said “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It is difficult to see how the elimination of what appears to be the most capable Sunni fighting force in the Middle East will not strengthen Iran’s hand and further embolden them. The presence of American and Iranian military advisers in Iraq, and our common purpose there, appears to make achievement of Iran’s goals more likely and less costly.

As for Syria, President Obama had previously spoken of a red line regarding their use of chemical weapons and that Assad must step down, yet America now strikes Assad’s most lethal foe.


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The Right Choice?

By Erik Goepner

It has been eight years since the demise of Saddam Hussein. During his brutal reign, the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people, invaded an American ally, and went to war with one of our enemies. Across his 24-year rule, hundreds of thousands died. The intervening years since the 2003 invasion have resulted in more than 200,000 killed and the Islamic State now controls wide swaths of both Iraq and Iran. As a result, both American and Iranian forces are in Iraq fighting IS.

In the 1980s, Saddam was an ally of sorts, as the discomforting photo of him shaking hands with then-Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld suggests. Only a few years earlier, Iran had overthrown the U.S.-backed Shah, taken U.S. citizens hostage and embarked on what seemed to be a radical path. In response, America supported Saddam’s war efforts against Iran.

But, then, power seemingly having corrupted absolutely, he invaded Kuwait. Regardless of what the Ambassador did or did not say, Saddam poorly estimated the global response and a decisive military victory against the battle hardened, fifth largest army of the world soon followed. Horrible repression of revolts, sanctions and no-fly zones ensued.

Then came 9/11. If it weren’t un-American, I’d tell you we were a bit scared. Assuredly, we wanted revenge and America was ready to prevent future attacks by all necessary means. Meanwhile, Saddam was posturing for his neighbors, dropping hints about having weapons of mass destruction, while violating U.N. resolutions.

And so, in early 2003, Desert Storm II kicked off. In less than three weeks Baghdad fell. In short order, the Iraqi Army and security forces were disbanded and the government was largely crippled through de-Baathification. Regrettable remarks such as “freedom is untidy” from the Secretary of Defense and others accompanied the beginnings of the civil war they refused to acknowledge.

Almost 12 years have passed. Two hundred thousand people have been killed, the United States has spent trillions, and a barbaric terrorist group—IS—dominates much of the Iraq. America finds itself working uncomfortably close with an avowed enemy (Iran), while local militias, to include those the U.S. fought against during the war, offer the best chance for success.

Are there times when tolerating an evil yields less tragedy than a noble, yet ill-informed, pursuit?


Image Credit: Daily Paul