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.

Stories You May Have Missed

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.

 

Image Credit: defense.gov

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