Pandora Report: 9.23.2022

Happy fall! It’s finally time to enjoy all things pumpkin spice free of judgement. We will save the judgement for professional matters. Speaking of which…does a pandemic end when the US president says it does? Nope! We kick off this week discussing why the COVID-19 pandemic may be ending but is certainly not over. We also discuss new US export limits on fentanyl to Russia, highlights from the UNGA, and more.

When Does a Pandemic End?

Early this week, President Biden stated that “The pandemic is over,” on “60 Minutes.” He continued by saying “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it…but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”

“Everybody” is definitely not “in pretty good shape.” There were 25,202 American COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country the day that President Biden made this statement. The week before his appearance on the show had a 59,856 case 7-day average in the United States, down 71,190 from the week before. This number is also likely low given how many in the US now use at-home testing without reporting positives to public health authorities. Worse, the US averaged 358 COVID-19 deaths that 7-day period, with our national total sitting at 1,047,020 Americans dead from COVID-19 as of September 14. According to estimates by Brookings, around 16 million working-age Americans suffer from long COVID right now, bringing potentially devastating economic and social impacts. While the situation today is better off than the US was with COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic, it is far from over.

Politico wrote of the president’s statement “White House officials on Sunday downplayed Biden’s comments as simply an attempt to reflect where the U.S. is at now, according to Adam— that is, still dealing with Covid but not gripped by a pandemic that is all-consuming. But whether Biden’s phrasing was a gaffe or intentional, the president’s precise words matter for pandemic policy and public health messaging as the U.S. continues its battle with Covid.”

Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CBS “It didn’t make sense from a policy perspective…I don’t want to take away from the fact that the president overall has done a good job as the leader fighting Covid. But you can’t really say the statements are just careless because he said it — I mean, I listened to it — he made a point of saying it twice.”

Politico continued, writing “His remarks also won’t help with the country’s already-struggling booster uptake, Hotez said. The FDA and CDC just authorized a new Covid booster shot, and the White House has pushed Americans to roll up their sleeves for the Omicron-specific vaccine. Earlier this summer, Covid shots became available for young children, but the vaccination rate remains abysmal: Just under 325,000 young children are fully vaccinated across the U.S., according to the CDC.”

The US has also experienced a surge in cases driven by a new variant each winter since 2020. While the US has rolled out bivalent vaccines ahead of the coming winter, only time will tell if this trend will continue, an especially concerning fact given the likelihood of an especially bad flu season on the horizon for the northern hemisphere. Experts like Dr. Hotez remain especially concerned that a new variant is coming and will again wreak havoc in the US.

Hotez and others have also pointed out this is not going to help the president secure the $22.4 billion in additional COVID-response funding the administration is seeking. Predictably, Biden’s declaration triggered partisan response in Congress, with some members demanding that this statement should end measures like DoD’s vaccination requirements and pandemic student loan relief. “This is not a statement you make when you’re trying to persuade the Congress to allocate funds,” Hotez said. “For public health, scientific, policy reasons — not the way to go. He hit the trifecta.”

However, some experts do agree with President Biden’s statement, arguing the US is no longer in the emergency state it was earlier in the pandemic. NPR wrote of Biden’s statement, “It is a reasonable thing to do as we collectively move on from this emergency footing that we’ve been on for the last couple of years, and try to navigate a new normal,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of UCSF’s Department of Medicine. “It’s an appropriate way of thinking about the threat as it stands today.”

So, when does a pandemic end? It definitely isn’t when the US president suddenly says it does, but the answer is still complicated. A pandemic can be considered over when the disease becomes endemic, but that transition isn’t well defined and there is no clear authority to make that judgement call. A pandemic happens when a disease spreads across large regions or world wide, so there is no single leader in charge of declaring it over. Furthermore, the WHO recently refused to say whether or not it will formally recognize an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. A WHO spokesman told CNN “”WHO does not have a mechanism for declaring or ending a “pandemic…’ Instead, he said, WHO will continue to assess the need for the public health emergency, and an expert committee meets every three months to do that.” While the WHO says the world is nearing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Director General still stressed this week that “being able to see the end, doesn’t mean we are at the end.”

This is reflected in US health policy, even as officials stress the country is no longer in the emergency stage. “We are no longer in the emergency phase of the pandemic…we haven’t yet defined what endemicity looks like,” Dr. Ashwin Vasan, NYC Health Commissioner, said at an event with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra this week. Ultimately, while the situation in the United States is undoubtedly better and improving, this is not the time to let up on the gas.

US Limits Exports of Fentanyl to Russia…and Well Plates?

The US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) announced last week that the bureau is applying further restrictions on Belarus and Russia. This move also “…strictly limited the export of fentanyl and related chemicals to Russia, saying that they “may be useful” as chemical weapons to support Russia’s “military aggression,” The Washington Post reports. Under this new rule, fentanyl sales to Russia and Belarus will now require special licensing. This echoes actions taken by the EU this summer to control exports of fentanyl and other related exports to Russia. The 2002 Nord-Ost siege, when Chechen terrorists seized the Dubrovka Theater, culminated with Russian forces filling the theater with an aerosol made from carfentanil and remifentanil, both fentanyl derivatives. This action killed over 100 hostages in the theater in addition to the insurgents, and demonstrated Russia’s interests in these weapons.

In addition to measures controlling quantum computing-related hardware and other matters, the rule released last week specifically “Expands the scope of the Russian industry sector sanctions to add items potentially useful for Russia’s chemical and biological weapons production capabilities and items needed for advanced production and development capabilities that enable advanced manufacturing across a number of industries.” This includes export restrictions on a number of kinds of laboratory equipment that BIS has determined are not manufactured in Russia. The report explains this logic, reading “Therefore, the implementation of restrictive export controls on this equipment by the United States and our allies will economically impact Russia and significantly hinder Russia’s CBW production capabilities.” This list includes items like fermenters and compressors ‘‘specially designed to compress wet or dry chlorine,
regardless of material of construction,” but also well plates and PCR instruments, offering interesting insight into the state of biotech and life sciences research in Russia.

United Nations General Assembly Highlights

The UN General Assembly wraps up its 77th session today following several days of high level engagement, including a speech from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Here are some global health security-related highlights from this session:

Food Security– During a side event on Tuesday, leaders from across Europe, the Americas, and Africa called for immediate funding and action to address the growing food security crisis that has been worsened by Russia’s war in Ukraine. AP reports that “Speaking at a Global Food Security Summit on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly, the leaders demanded an end to the war, with each calling it a needless “aggression” and Spain’s prime minister accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “blackmail” the world with hunger by causing severe disruptions in the export of Ukrainian grain.”

““Russia must end its illegal war against Ukraine, which has certainly been an essential source of the world’s food supply,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told the gathering. “The truth is that Putin is trying to blackmail the international community with a large part of the world’s food needs. We cannot combat hunger without peace. The world is expecting much from us. Let’s act together, and let’s act now.””

The Global FundThe Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria hosted its replenishment conference this week with President Biden, seeking to close its $18 billion funding gap for the next few years. However, the Fund only accumulated $14.25 billion in pledges, though the organization stated it expects the gap will close as more donations come in. The UK and Italy notably delayed their pledges. Sarah Champion discussed this in The Guardian, writing “As the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the UK’s aid watchdog, stated in its recent report: the Global Fund is the project covered by the government’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) that has the greatest value for money. With this in mind, it is hard to believe that the government is choosing to ignore the facts and not fully commit to this cause.”

Non-Communicable Diseases– WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also released a new report, “Invisible Numbers: The true extend of noncommunicable diseases and what to do about them,” urging world leaders to take action on NCDs, which annually are responsible for 17 million premature deaths and cause nearly three quarters of all global deaths. The report’s description explains “Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – chief among them, cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke), cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases – along with mental health, cause nearly three quarters of deaths in the world. Their drivers are social, environmental, commercial and genetic, and their presence is global. Every year 17 million people under the age of 70 die of NCDs, and 86% of them live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).”

Sudan Strain Responsible for Ebola Outbreak in Uganda

Uganda has reported the probable Ebola-related death of a one-year-old , with 11 more suspected cases, one confirmed case, and six more probable cases identified in the country. The WHO reported that Uganda declared an outbreak after a 24-year-old man died after showing symptoms. Samples taken from him were later identified as the relatively rare Sudan strain of Ebola virus, marking the first time this strain has been found in the country. Uganda borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, which recently reported a new case after experiencing its fourteenth outbreak earlier this year. Uganda’s last Ebola outbreak was driven by the Zaire strain in 2019, though the country’s deadliest Ebola outbreak came in 2000, leaving over 200 dead.

The WHO released a statement from Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in which she explained “Uganda is no stranger to effective Ebola control”, she said. “Thanks to its expertise, action has been taken to quickly to detect the virus and we can bank on this knowledge to halt the spread of infections.” The WHO also explained that “Existing vaccines against Ebola have proved effective against the Zaire strain but it is not clear if they will be as successful against the Sudan strain,” in its statement.

“FDA Repeatedly Adapted Emergency Use Authorization Policies To Address the Need for COVID-19 Testing”

The HHS Office of Inspector General released this report this week on FDA’s use of its EUA authority to authorize COVID-19 tests early in the pandemic. The OIG report found that:

“The failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s first test rollout revealed vulnerabilities in the Federal approach to testing early in the COVID-19 pandemic. It is typical for CDC to be the first to receive an EUA, and FDA expected that the CDC’s test would meet the early testing needs of the nation. However, CDC’s first test was unusable for many for weeks while no other test was authorized. Furthermore, due in part to its limited engagement with the public health labs that were using CDC’s test, FDA was slow to realize that testing by public health labs was far more limited than it initially expected. To address problems with the first authorized COVID-19 test, FDA worked with CDC, including allowing CDC to modify the terms of its original EUA. However, preventing a similar problem from occurring in future emergencies would require actions outside of FDA’s authority alone.

In using its EUA authority, FDA also made calculated decisions to increase availability of COVID-19 testing, but these decisions often came at a potential cost to test quality. FDA authorized tests using lower levels of evidence to support developers struggling to access clinical samples. FDA’s policies allowed diagnostic and serology tests to get on the market quickly; however, that resulted in some problematic tests on the market, requiring further action by FDA.

FDA’s decision to accept all EUA requests resulted in a record number of submissions-often low-quality and from developers lacking experience with FDA’s processes. In response, FDA took steps to support developers and ease its workload, which included issuing EUA guidance, updating templates (submission guides for developers requesting EUA), and adjusting its EUA review process, among others. Some developers still reported being frustrated and confused.”

“Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure”

The House Ways and Means Committee recently released its report analyzing responses to an RFI sent to hospitals, health systems, and health care providers to “better understand how climate events have impacted the health sector, as well as steps the health care industry is taking to address its role in mitigating the climate crisis.” The committee explains that “Health Care and the Climate Crisis: Preparing America’s Health Care Infrastructure includes an overview of the role the U.S health system plays in the climate crisis. Part One provides an overview of the problem, description of Chair Neal’s 2022 Request for Information (RFI), and summary statistics from an analysis of survey respondents. Part Two examines how the climate crisis and the prevalence of extreme weather events impact health care organizations. Part Three describes how health care organizations are assessing their climate impact and working to reduce their respective carbon footprints. Part Four summarizes findings and provides a discussion of implications. Part Five is an appendix with survey methodology, limitations, and supplemental tables.”

“Strengthening the Biological Weapon’s Convention’s Contributions to Global Health Security”

This Think Global Health piece discusses false Russian BW allegations and the recent invocation of Article V of the BWC. The authors explain “Russia’s disinformation regarding Ukrainian biological laboratories is intended to distract and divide global attention concerning its reprehensible actions in Ukraine and to generate post hoc justification for its invasion. Russian invocation of Article V risks tainting the BWC consultation mechanism and abusing it to air political grievances and foment distrust. And, like the 1997 consultations, BWC parties reached no consensus, highlighting major challenges to the mechanism in the face of complex geopolitical tensions.”

“Harnessing the Power of Science and Technology Communities for Crisis Response”

The RAND Corporation recently released this Perspective, co-authored by Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, a Biodefense PhD Program alumnus, discussing DHS’s “…ability to leverage science and technology communities to support the use of science, technology, innovation, and analytical capabilities during crisis response.” The abstract explains, “RAND researchers conducted a literature review and discussions with subject-matter experts to understand how these capabilities have been used during past national security crises and how they could be used in the future. In this Perspective, the researchers offer a conceptual framework for employment of the science and technology communities’ capabilities during crisis response. They also present five imperatives that should be considered for providing technical support during a crisis and a concept for how to institutionalize that support. These critical elements form the basis for providing quality technical support to crisis leadership.”

“What is the Future of the Global Health Security Agenda?”

The Pandemic Action Network released this piece last week discussing the future of GHSA, explaining “The GHSA is now at an inflection point. While GHSA has built a strong community, the COVID-19 pandemic has also stress-tested domestic and global health systems and raised questions about the reach, relevance, and impact of this partnership. Despite its success as a forum for collaboration and incubator for health security concepts and networks, GHSA has been less visible as part of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, missing an important opportunity to activate its coordination mechanisms to support global policy discussions on the future of the global health security architecture.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

This Podcast Will Kill You “Episode 105 Down in the Mumps”

From TPWKY: “We’ve covered measles, we’ve taken on rubella, and now we’re finishing up the classic MMR vaccine by exploring the other M: mumps. To some listeners, mumps may be a painful childhood memory while to others it’s just a letter in a vaccine they were too young to remember getting. But by the end of this episode, we promise that you’ll all be much more familiar with this strange little virus. How does the mumps virus make you sick and give you that classic swollen face look? What is so bad about the mumps that Maurice Hilleman decided to snag a mumps sample from his sick daughter to make a vaccine? Where do we stand with mumps today and what do declining vaccination rates have to do with those not-so-great numbers? Tune in to hear our take on all these questions and many more in this classic TPWKY episode.” Listen here.

National Biodefense Science Board Public Meeting

The National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) is hosting its next public meeting on September 29 at 11 am ET. “This public meeting of the NBSB will focus on several topics, including the collection, analysis, and sharing of operational health data and/or development and implementation of systems to ensure the availability of virtual healthcare (telehealth, telemedicine, etc.) during a disaster. The NBSB is particularly concerned with the impacts of COVID-19 on rural and underserved communities, including the ways in which those communities succeeded or were challenged in conducting a public health response, and ways in which HHS can support strengthening of systems, technologies, and partnerships that will lead to improvements in data collection and virtual care during disasters.” Learn more and register here.

Introducing the Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences: Mitigating Biorisks and Governing Dual-Use

The WHO is offering this open webinar on 3 October 2022, 13:30-14:30 CEST, where an expert panel will introduce the recently released global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences: mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research and discuss its applications for different stakeholders. The panel will include a number of WHO experts as well as Drs. Anita Cicero and Filippa Lentzos. Learn more and register here.

Interested in Studying Biodefense? Come to Our Information Session!

Are you a Pandora Report reader who just can’t get enough? Consider applying to the Schar School’s Biodefense Program, which offers several graduate certificates, an MS in Biodefense (both in-person and online), and a PhD in Biodefense if you’re really into this. On October 11 at 12 pm ET you can join us virtually to learn more about admissions for the MS and graduate certificates, including info on the application process, student experiences, and graduate outcomes. Register here.

iGEM Responsibility Conference: Navigating the Future of Synthetic Biology

“For the first time ever, iGEM’s Responsibility Program is running a dedicated Responsibility Conference on the margins of this year’ s Grand Jamboree. The theme is ‘Navigating the future of synthetic biology’. The event is taking place from 26-27 October 2022 at the Paris Expo, Porte de Versailles, Paris, France. Join policy makers, technical experts, and other experts from around the world in exploring: Safe, secure, & responsible synbio beyond containment; Negotiating competing ideas of doing good; Applied biosafety & biosecurity; Lessons for governance of emerging technologies. If you are interested in taking part in this exciting new event, please register your interest online here, or contact us directly at responsibility@igem.org.”

Pathogens Project Launched

This week, “a group of scientists and public health leaders, convened by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, launched an international taskforce to consider trends and oversight of high-risk pathogen research. This follows the WHO’s recent release of the “Global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences: mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research.”

“Over the next few months, the initiative on “Creating the Framework for Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research” will discuss risk assessment and mitigation, including lab-based outbreak risks.   A public-facing conference in Geneva, Switzerland on April 19-21, 2023, will include task force members, policy leaders, journalists, scientists, and civic leaders, among others, and will produce a summary report with recommendations for a comprehensive global approach to management of extremely high-risk biological research.”

Read more about the project here.

Pandora Report: 9.16.2022

It has been a busy week and this issue reflects that! We kick this issue off with updates on the conclusion of the Biological Weapons Convention Article V Formal Consultative Meeting in Geneva before getting into everything from the United States’ inclusion on the WHO’s list of countries with circulating vaccine-derived polio (yikes) and new US government health security leadership and funding. As always, there are enough new publications, podcasts and upcoming events to keep you way too busy until next Friday.

BTWC Consultative Meeting Wraps Up

Last Friday, the Biological Weapons Convention Article V Formal Consultative Meeting requested by Russia concluded in Geneva. The meeting was held in response to Russia’s claims that the US supports biological weapons development in Ukraine. The US State Department issued a statement accusing Russia of abusing the consultative meeting process by using it as an international stage to further spread disinformation. The statement reads in part, “The United States delegation, led by Special Representative Kenneth D. Ward, effectively exposed Russia’s disinformation tactics and dispelled Russia’s spurious allegations seeking to malign peaceful U.S. cooperation with Ukraine.”

“In the presence of delegations from 89 countries, the United States and Ukraine presented a thorough, in-depth series of presentations that strongly refuted Russia’s absurd and false claims of U.S. biological weapons development and bio-labs in Ukraine. Technical experts from the U.S. and Ukrainian delegations unambiguously explained their cooperation and U.S. assistance related to public health facilities, biosafety, biosecurity, and disease surveillance as part of the broader U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The United States and Ukraine also highlighted how such activities are consistent with—and further support—the provisions of the BWC, particularly Article X, which promotes cooperation and assistance by States Parties. States Parties affirmed and supported the United States in this regard, with over 35 of the 42 countries that spoke noting the importance of such work.”

Belarus, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe also submitted a joint statement on Friday, showing that the Russians just aren’t ready to give this up-“We have to conclude that the questions as to the military biological activities conducted by the United States in the context of the functioning of biological laboratories on the Ukrainian territory still remain unresolved. We have not received exhaustive explanations that could completely allay the doubts concerning the said activities and thus straighten out the situation that had prompted the Russian side to convene the Consultative meeting under BTWC Article V. This is regrettable.”

The statement later continued, “In addition, given the outcomes of the Consultative meeting as well as to facilitate the resolution of the existing situation, we call for making use of all opportunities available within the framework of the BTWC, including the mechanism under Article VI of the Convention.”

Article VI of the convention is the provision of “Right to request the United Nations Security Council to investigate alleged breaches of the BWC, and undertaking to cooperate in carrying out any investigation initiated by the Security Council.”

Though China’s Xi Jinping has yet to officially back Russia’s claims, his representative at the consultative meeting, Li Song, said “China was “deeply concerned” about the allegations and called for an independent international investigation of the United States’ activities involving biological research,” according to the New York Times. “My delegation believes that a series of specific questions raised by Russia have not yet received pointed response from the U.S.,” Li said in a statement provided by the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.

What Purpose Does This Disinformation Serve?

While Soviet and, later, Russian disinformation surrounding US BW programs (or the lack thereof) is nothing new, it is important to understand what purposes it serves. With Russian claims about supposed US BW work in Ukraine doing everything from developing an ethnic bioweapon to target Russians to training birds to deliver biological weapons, these claims are broad and have far-reaching consequences. For starters, these claims help the Russians justify and legitimize the invasion of Ukraine to their people by offering a threat to the homeland that justifies the severe cost this has had for the country.

However, claims like this also damage public health, especially since the facilities targeted by this disinformation, both in Ukraine and other countries assisted by the United States’ Cooperative Threat Reduction program, are those with important public health missions. This was the case when allegations were aimed at the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia, home to the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Prevention and US Army Medical Research Directorate-Georgia. The Lugar Center was instrumental in Georgia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, shoring up diagnostic capability for the country. Targeting facilities with such important missions, especially when they are well-documented to be working on strictly peaceful work, undermines their legitimate service to the public and their role in protecting health security globally.

Furthermore, the RAND Corporation’s John V. Parachini explains, “It’s tempting to write off such claims as cartoonish propaganda. But Russia is also making similarly outrageous claims to the United Nations and other international forums, and that’s more serious. Such maneuvers could dangerously undermine international arms control agreements.” He also explains of Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UNSC Vassily Nebenzia’s claims about Ukraine that “What the ambassador failed to mention was that Russian scientists visited these same laboratories in the past and never noted anything like what Russian officials now claim. Moreover, the United States had been collaborating with Russia in the same way—providing similar assistance to Russia to refocus the activities of former Soviet biological weapons laboratories, until Russia pulled out of the program in 2014, the same year it invaded Crimea.”

United States Added to WHO’s List of Countries with Circulating Vaccine-Derived Poliovirus

At one point in the 1940s, polio disabled an average of over 35,000 Americans annually. However, thanks to a robust vaccination push, the Pan American Health Organization announced in 1994 that “…three years had passed since the last case of wild polio in the Americas. A three-year-old Peruvian boy, Luis Fermín, had the last registered case there.” There have been no cases of polio originating in the US caused by wild poliovirus since 1979. However, wild poliovirus has been brought into the country by travelers, with the last occurrence in 1993.

This week, “CDC…announced that polioviruses found in New York, both from the case of paralytic polio in an unvaccinated adult in Rockland County and in several wastewater samples from communities near the patient’s residence, meet the World Health Organization (WHO)’s criteria for circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) – meaning that poliovirus continues to be transmitted in Rockland County, NY, and surrounding areas.”

The press release continued, “CDC is working closely with WHO, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and other international public health partner organizations. As previously reported, the virus’ genetic sequences from the patient from Rockland County, NY, and wastewater specimens collected in New York have been linked to wastewater samples in Jerusalem, Israel, and London, UK, indicating community transmission. The viral sequences from the patient and from three wastewater specimens had enough genetic changes to meet the definition of a vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV).  These two things – one individual with VDPV and at least one detection of a related VDPV in an environmental sample – meet WHO’s definition of cVDPV, and CDC submitted this data to WHO for inclusion on its list of countries with cVDPV. There are global recommendations for countries with cVDPV2 outbreaks to protect people from polio, and the United States is taking all appropriate actions to prevent new cases of paralysis.”

While polio spreading in wealthy countries is concerning, check out Leslie Roberts’ article in Science news-“Polio is back in rich countries, but it poses a far bigger threat to developing world”.

US Announces Investments in Bioeconomy and Commits to Improving Biosecurity…Sorta?

Late this week, the White House announced $2 billion in “new investments and resources to advance President Biden’s National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative.” The funding aims to expand domestic biomanufacturing, help bring new bio-products to market, train future generations of biotechnologists, and “drive regulatory innovation to increase access to products of biotechnology,” among other goals. However, the fact sheet also discusses the goal to “reduce risk through investing in biosecurity innovations,” which states that “DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration [(NNSA)] plans to initiate a new $20 million bioassurance program that will advance U.S. capabilities to anticipate, assess, detect, and mitigate biotechnology and biomanufacturing risks, and will integrate biosecurity into biotechnology development.”

This has drawn some criticism as $20 million towards biosafety is a small amount of the (1%) of the overall $2 billion in funding announced, particularly with the growing need to address gaps in global biosafety. Furthermore, its placement under the NNSA has brought some concern, particularly as the Office of Defense Nuclear Proliferation, which “works globally to prevent state and non-state actors from developing nuclear weapons or acquiring weapons-usable nuclear or radiological materials, equipment, technology, and expertise,” will be tasked with overseeing the program.

US Government Gets New Health Security Leadership

Dr. Renee Wegrzyn Appointed First Director of Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H)

President Biden appointed Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, a biologist currently at Gingko Bioworks, to lead the recently created Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Biden proposed the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to “improve the U.S. government’s ability to speed biomedical and health research. Public Law 117-103 was enacted on March 15, 2022, authorizing the establishment of ARPA-H within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

STAT reports, “Wegrzyn, 45, currently works at Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, a company focused on biological engineering, but has prior experience in two government agencies Biden has said he hopes to emulate with ARPA-H — the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.” STAT also explains that “Wegrzyn is one of four former DARPA officials that STAT reported in July had been interviewed for the ARPA-H job by White House science adviser Francis Collins. She will not need Senate confirmation for her role but is sure to face scrutiny from lawmakers who have questioned the need for a new health agency, arguing it could replicate efforts at the National Institutes of Health.”

FDA Names Dr. David Kaslow New Director of Office of Vaccines Research and Review

Dr. David Kaslow, Chief Scientific Officer for Essential Medicines and Head of Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access at PATH, will become the FDA’s new director of the Office of Vaccines Research and Review on October 11. “Dr. Kaslow has more than 35 years of experience in vaccine research and development. He joined PATH in 2012 as Director of PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI), leading the development of well-tolerated and effective vaccines against malaria. Prior to joining PATH, he was a Vice President of Vaccines and Infectious Disease at Merck Research Laboratories, while serving in key advisory positions with MVI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” He was also the founder of the NIH’s Malaria Vaccine Development Unit.

His predecessor, Dr. Marion Gruber, retired last year and her deputy, Dr. Philip Krause, left the FDA a month later in November. According to the New York Times, “One reason is that Dr. Gruber and Dr. Krause were upset about the Biden administration’s recent announcement that adults should get a coronavirus booster vaccination eight months after they received their second shot, according to people familiar with their thinking.” Biopharma Dive explains further that “Shortly after the departures were announced, both were listed as co-authors of an article published in The Lancet that then argued against broad rollout of COVID-19 vaccine boosters, at a time when the Biden administration was preparing to begin a booster campaign.”

World Bank and WHO Launch Financial Intermediary Fund (FIF) for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response

This week, World Bank and WHO announced the establishment of the FIF for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. “The fund will provide a dedicated stream of additional, long-term financing to strengthen PPR capabilities in low- and middle-income countries and address critical gaps through investments and technical support at the national, regional, and global levels. The fund will draw on the strengths and comparative advantages of key institutions engaged in PPR, provide complementary support, improve coordination among partners, incentivize increased country investments, serve as a platform for advocacy, and help focus and sustain much-needed, high-level attention on strengthening health systems.” The first round of calls for investments to be funded by the FIF will be available in November this year.

United Nations General Assembly Passes Resolution A/76/L.76%20

The UNGA earlier this month passed Resolution A/76/L.76%20 calling on the 78th UNGA to hold a high-level meeting on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. Among other things, the resolution states, “Recognizing that health is a precondition for and an outcome and indicator of all three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – of sustainable development and that, despite progress made, challenges in global health, including major inequities and vulnerabilities within and among countries, regions and populations, still remain and demand persistent and urgent attention,…

  1. Decides to hold a one-day high-level meeting, to be convened by the President of the General Assembly in collaboration with the World Health Organization, and at the level of Heads of State and Government, by no later than the last day of the general debate of the Assembly at its seventy-eighth session, to adopt a succinct political declaration aimed at, inter alia, mobilizing political will at the national, regional and international levels for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response;
  2. Recommends that the President of the General Assembly appoint two co-facilitators to present options and modalities for the high-level meeting, as well as the political declaration.”

The Lancet-“COVID-19 Response: A Massive Global Failure”

With COVID-19 deaths the lowest they have been since March 2020, the Lancet released its much anticipated commission report and accompanying infographic this week discussing global failures in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendations for improvement. The report explains “The Commission delivers a number of recommendations that are divided into three main areas. First, practical steps to finally control and understand the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, realistic, feasible, and necessary investments to strengthen the first line of defence against emerging infectious agents in countries by strengthening health systems and widening universal health coverage. Third, ambitious proposals to ignite a renaissance in multilateralism, integrating the global response to the risk of future pandemics with actions to address the climate crisis and reversals in sustainable development.”

“Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences: Mitigating Biorisks and Governing Dual-Use Research”

This week, the WHO released the Global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences, which calls on leaders and other stakeholders to “mitigate biorisks and safely govern dual-use research, which has a clear benefit but can be misused to harm humans, other animals, agriculture and the environment.” According to the WHO’s press release, “This is the first global, technical and normative framework for informing the development of national frameworks and approaches for mitigating biorisks and governing dual-use research,” and “The Framework addresses the decades-long challenges of preventing the accidental and deliberate misuse of biology and other life sciences, as well as how to manage governance and oversight to both accelerate and spread innovation, while mitigating negative impacts. The life sciences are increasingly crossing over with other fields, such as chemistry, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, which changes the landscape of risks, with those that span multiple sectors and disciplines more likely to be missed.” The Schar School’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz contributed to several of the working groups formed in the creation of this framework.

“100 Days of Monkeypox: Evaluating the U.S. Response to the Emerging Global Outbreak”

Dr. Daniel P. Regan, a biomedical engineer and a Fellow at the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons, recently authored this Council on Strategic Risks briefer on the United States’ first 100 days dealing with monkeypox. The brifer “…details the early dynamics of the outbreak, evaluates the testing, vaccination, and therapeutic rollout, and provides an outlook and analysis meant to help the United States prevent and address similar biological threats.”

“Differential Technology Development: A Responsible Innovation Principle for Navigating Technology Risks”

This article, available as a pre-print on SSRN, discusses differential technology development  and its potential benefits for private and government research funding and technology regulations. The abstract reads “Responsible innovation efforts to date have largely focused on shaping individual technologies. However, as demonstrated by the preferential advancement of low-emission technologies, certain technologies reduce risks from other technologies or constitute low-risk substitutes. Governments and other relevant actors may leverage risk-reducing interactions across technology portfolios to mitigate risks beyond climate change. We propose a responsible innovation principle of “differential technology development”, which calls for leveraging risk-reducing interactions between technologies by affecting their relative timing. Thus, it may be beneficial to delay risk-increasing technologies and preferentially advance risk-reducing defensive, safety, or substitute technologies. Implementing differential technology development requires the ability to anticipate or identify impacts and intervene in the relative timing of technologies. We find that both are sometimes viable and that differential technology development may still be usefully applied even late in the diffusion of a harmful technology. A principle of differential technology development may inform government research funding priorities and technology regulation, as well as philanthropic research and development funders and corporate social responsibility measures. Differential technology development may be particularly promising to mitigate potential catastrophic risks from emerging technologies like synthetic biology and artificial intelligence.”

“Over Half of Known Human Pathogenic Diseases Can be Aggravated by Climate Change”

While Mora et al.’s August article re-confirms what we intuitively know, it offers a sobering reminder and quantification of the immense risks unchecked climate change brings. Their abstract explains “It is relatively well accepted that climate change can affect human pathogenic diseases; however, the full extent of this risk remains poorly quantified. Here we carried out a systematic search for empirical examples about the impacts of ten climatic hazards sensitive to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on each known human pathogenic disease. We found that 58% (that is, 218 out of 375) of infectious diseases confronted by humanity worldwide have been at some point aggravated by climatic hazards; 16% were at times diminished. Empirical cases revealed 1,006 unique pathways in which climatic hazards, via different transmission types, led to pathogenic diseases. The human pathogenic diseases and transmission pathways aggravated by climatic hazards are too numerous for comprehensive societal adaptations, highlighting the urgent need to work at the source of the problem: reducing GHG emissions.”

Dr. Jennifer Doudna Authors Piece on the Benefits of Gene Editing

Dr. Jennifer Doudna, a pioneering American biochemist who received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR gene editing, recently authored a piece in the Atlantic, “Starting a CRISPR Revolution Isn’t Enough,” discussing the great strides and improvements that the technology has experienced in recent years. She covers the origins of modern biotechnology from the 1970s onwards before moving on to the growing CRISPR economy, which was valued at $5.2 billion in 2020, and what investments she thinks governments and research organizations need to make today to ensure the benefits of the technology are broad in application. She also cautions that “Powerful technology, of course, comes with the potential for misuse, and CRISPR’s powers raise important questions…These strategies could help fight the spread of invasive species and devastating diseases such as malaria, but without careful assessment and governance, they could also pose a risk to whole ecosystems.”

She further elaborates on this in her discussion of the “CRISPR babies” scandal that resulted from He Jiankui’s work editing the genomes of viable human embryos that later became twin children. She explains the need for regulations to prevent such use of the technology, writing “Without these guardrails, we may not only harm humans and our environment, but also risk societal backlash against the very technologies that could preserve and improve our health and make our planet more livable.”

While Dr. Doudna focuses primarily on the benefits of this technology, it does bring significant security concerns as discussed by the Schar School’s Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley in her award-winning paper, “From CRISPR babies to super soldiers: challenges and security threats posed by CRISPR,“ and by Dr. Gregory Koblentz and his co-authors in their report, “Editing Biosecurity: Needs and Strategies for Governing Genome Editing“.

“Conspiracy Theories About COVID-19 Help Nobody”

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Michael Worobey, department head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, recently published an argument piece in Foreign Policy discussing how COVID-19 conspiracy theories harm us all. They focus on ” the idea that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was engineered in a laboratory” and the appointment of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, who they describe as “a Columbia University economist with no expertise in virology, evolution, epidemiology, or public health,” as the chair of the Lancet‘s COVID-19 commission.

They write, “Although biosafety and biosecurity are of paramount importance, especially to virologists who actually handle these dangerous pathogens, they are irrelevant to the zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2 and polarize an ongoing discussion that must occur in a multidisciplinary, bipartisan way. Fictional origin stories that politicize regulating essential research only serve to remove the science from a necessarily scientific discourse…The suspicion cast on virologists and epidemiologists is profoundly harmful.”

Rasmussen and Worobey were co-authors of the two Science papers released this summer that strongly supported the idea that SARS-CoV-2 is zoonotic in origin and initially infected people naturally at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan-“The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2” and “The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.” They also authored an opinion piece discussing this work in plain language for the Globe and Mail in July that is available here.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

Radiolab: 40,000 Recipes for Murder

The Schar School’s Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was interviewed on NPR’s Radiolab. The episode, 40,000 Recipes for Murder, asks the question, “Two scientists realize that the very same AI technology they have developed to discover medicines for rare diseases can also discover the most potent chemical weapons known to humankind. Inadvertently opening the Pandora’s Box of WMDs. What should they do now?” Listen here.

The Retort Episode 3: The Evolving Chemical and Biological Weapon Challenge

In this episode, Dr. Edwards talks with Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, founder of The Trench, about developments leading to modern CBW, the development of modern international law, and current and emerging challenges in this area. Read Dr. Zanders blog about it here and watch/listen to the episode here.

Interested in Studying Biodefense? Come to Our Information Session!

Are you a Pandora Report reader who just can’t get enough? Consider applying to the Schar School’s Biodefense Program, which offers several graduate certificates, an MS in Biodefense (both in-person and online), and a PhD in Biodefense if you’re really into this. On October 11 at 12 pm ET you can join us virtually to learn more about admissions for the MS and graduate certificates, including info on the application process, student experiences, and graduate outcomes. Register here.

Monkeypox: Have We Learned Anything from COVID-19?

“The Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University will host a panel discussion entitled Monkeypox: Have we learned anything from COVID-19?, featuring moderator Dr. Gerald Parker and panelists Drs. Robert Carpenter, Syra Madad, Jennifer A. Shuford, and Bob Kadlec. Dr. Gerald Parker will moderate a panel of experts, including Drs. Robert Carpenter, Syra Madad, Jennifer A. Shuford, and Bob Kadlec, as they explore the Monkeypox outbreak. Recently declared a public health crisis by the federal government, Monkeypox is the thing on everyone’s mind. The panel will answer questions such as: Are we making the same mistakes with Monkeypox as we did with COVID-19? How can we do better with this and future pandemic threats? Is this something we need to be concerned about? And more. This will be a hybrid event. It will take place in person in Hagler Auditorium in the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center and virtually via zoom, (link available upon registration) and will start promptly at 5:30 PM CT.” Register online to attend.

Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats

On Tuesday, September 20 from 9:00am–10:30am ET, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) will host a webinar entitled “Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats.” n this webinar, experts will discuss the changing biological threat landscape and some key avenues to improve preparedness and response capabilities for addressing future biological threats. The webinar will begin with a keynote address from Dr. David Christian Hassell. As Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Hassell will share his expertise and vision on how the United States may continue to build on successes and opportunities to address future biological threats. A panel discussion will follow Dr. Hassell’s address featuring Dr. Pardis Sabeti, Professor at the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University, who will share her ongoing work in biosurveillance and pathogen early warning and Dr. Akhila Kosaraju, CEO and President of Phare Bio, who will discuss the role of the private-sector in developing medical countermeasures and other technologies for reducing biological threats. You can register to attend here.

iGEM Responsibility Conference: Navigating the Future of Synthetic Biology

“For the first time ever, iGEM’s Responsibility Program is running a dedicated Responsibility Conference on the margins of this year’ s Grand Jamboree. The theme is ‘Navigating the future of synthetic biology’. The event is taking place from 26-27 October 2022 at the Paris Expo, Porte de Versailles, Paris, France. Join policy makers, technical experts, and other experts from around the world in exploring: Safe, secure, & responsible synbio beyond containment; Negotiating competing ideas of doing good; Applied biosafety & biosecurity; Lessons for governance of emerging technologies. If you are interested in taking part in this exciting new event, please register your interest online here, or contact us directly at responsibility@igem.org.”

Post-Pandemic Recovery: From What, For Whom, and How?

“The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security invites you to a webinar on “Post-Pandemic Recovery: From What, For Whom, and How?” to be held on October 4 and October 6, 2022, 12:00-2:30pm ET. During this online symposium, we will engage a broad community of practitioners in discussions about operationalizing a holistic process of post-pandemic recovery: What systems can local jurisdictions set up and strengthen that sustain the long view on getting through and past the pandemic, reverse the social determinants of uneven impacts, and develop resilience to future public health emergencies?

On Day 1, representatives from diverse sectors will diagnose tangible harms from COVID-19 (urgent and enduring), prescribing remedies that can facilitate a comprehensive post-pandemic recovery. On Day 2, community advocates and practitioners will describe their experiences in planning for post-pandemic recovery in their jurisdictions, sharing lessons learned for peers elsewhere. A full list of speakers can be found in the agenda. The symposium kicks off a larger project, sponsored by the Open Philanthropy Project, that supports local decision makers in assessing COVID-19 recovery efforts.” Please register here.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity Virtual Meeting

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), chaired by Dr. Gerald Parker, Associate Dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University, will host a virtual meeting on September 21 at 1 pm ET. The meeting will include a working group update on Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight (P3CO) policy review and more with an opportunity for public comments. Read the preliminary draft findings and recommendations here and access the webcast here.

ICYMI: September 1 White House Webinar on the Annual Report of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan

Earlier this month, the Biden administration hosted a webinar to discuss the first Annual Report of the American Pandemic Pandemic Preparedness Plan. Check it out on the White House YouTube channel.

Smithsonian’s Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World Exhibit to Close October 3

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s temporary exhibit, Outbreak, is scheduled to close permanently next month following its four-year run. The exhibit helps guests “Learn how to think like an epidemiologist—find the connections between human, animal, and environmental health in an interactive simulation; Reflect on personal memories and photos from disease survivors and frontline healthcare workers; and Work cooperatively with other visitors to contain an outbreak before it spreads further in a multi-player game.” While this exhibit is closing, the Smithsonian plans to offer a new One Health webinar series this fall and you can still apply to be granted access to the DIY version of the exhibit for show anywhere in the world! Also, if you can’t make it to DC in time for the closure, check out the virtual tour available here.

Pandora Report: 9.2.2022

Happy Labor Day Weekend! This week we cover the Biden administration’s first annual report on the progress of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, German officials’ searches of several companies suspected to be exporting restricted chemicals to Russian companies, and more. We also discuss several new publications, including a RAND Corporation ebook discussing North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, and several upcoming events–the most exciting of which are the Biodefense Program’s upcoming open houses for prospective graduate students!

United States Announces First Death of Monkeypox Patient

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) announced the first death of someone diagnosed with monkeypox this week, though Healio reports officials have not determined if the disease was the person’s cause of death or not. “The adult, who died on Aug. 28 at a hospital in Harris County, had “various severe illnesses [and] was also presumptive positive for monkeypox,” according to Harris County Public Health. DSHS stated that the patient was severely immunocompromised and that autopsy results should be available in the coming days. “Monkeypox is a serious disease, particularly for those with weakened immune systems,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS Commissioner. “We continue to urge people to seek treatment if they have been exposed to monkeypox or have symptoms consistent with the disease.”

White House Releases Annual Report on American Pandemic Preparedness Plan

Yesterday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released the first Annual Report on Progress Towards Implementation of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, detailing matters like investment priorities and areas needing the most attention in the coming years. The report documents progresses made in implementing transformational capabilities in the areas of: transforming our medical defenses, ensuring situational awareness, strengthening public health systems, building core capabilities, and managing the mission. It also identifies “utilizing current infectious disease health challenges to “exercise” pandemic preparedness” and “achieving a ‘portfolio view’ of U.S. government pandemic preparedness investment to ensure readiness and maximize impact” as key goals. To achieve these goals, the document identifies numerous smaller goals, ranging in everything from developing flexible vaccine administration techniques to developing standard efficacy testing methods for air treatment technologies.

FDA Authorizes Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccines

The FDA announced this week that the emergency use authorizations in place for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines were amended to authorize bivalent versions for use as a single booster dose at least two months after primary or booster vaccination. This comes as we near fall, during which it is predicted that the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant, which are currently causing most US COVID-19 cases, will circulate heavily. FDA explained in a press release “The bivalent vaccines, which we will also refer to as “updated boosters,” contain two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of SARS-CoV-2 virus, one of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 and the other one in common between the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.” Moderna’s bivalent offering is authorized for use in those 18 and older, while Pfizer’s is authorized for those over 12.

‘“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) of COVID-19,”’ said FDA Commissioner, Dr. Robert M. Califf. ‘“As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.”’

Science published answers to FAQs regarding these vaccines, explaining the authorization process, the data the companies collected in creating these boosters, and the benefits they offer.

German Officials Conduct Raids on Companies Exporting Dual-Use Chemicals to Russia

Earlier this week, German customs officials conducted searches of multiple company facilities across the country on suspicion that the companies have been sending export-restricted materials, including a precursor of Novichok, to Russian companies known to work with the Russian military and intelligence services.

The core company in the network, Riol Chemie GmbH, completed more than 30 shipments of different chemicals and lab equipment to Russia-based Chimmed Group over the course of the last few years without proper export permits. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, “Chimmed is a wholesaler of such goods, and Russian media have reported that its customers include the military and intelligence services.”

Tagesschau explained further that “In the course of the attack on Navalny, the company Riol Chemie GmbH was already in the focus of Western intelligence services. After the assassination, the United States imposed sanctions on Russian state officials and issued export restrictions for a dozen companies. The list, which was not adopted by the EU, also includes Riol Chemie, which has now been searched. The Russian chemical wholesaler Khmmed [Chimmed], which Riol Chemie apparently supplied according to the investigation, also ended up on the list.”

Multiple Countries Issue Joint Statement on “the Contribution of Cooperative Threat Reduction Partnerships to Global Health Security”

The Governments of the United States of America, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Liberia, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Ukraine released this statement this week in light of the opening of the consultative meeting requested by Russia to discuss its false claims that the US is running a network of BW facilities in Ukraine. The statement reads, “The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of strong national capacities for infectious disease surveillance, diagnosis, and response. International cooperation and assistance play a critical role in building these capacities. Our governments have partnered openly and transparently through the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. These partnerships are devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes; they have nothing to do with weapons. These partnerships protect the health of humans and animals in our countries, including in the prevention, detection, and control of infectious disease outbreaks, and in enhancing laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. As partners in this program, we each have firsthand knowledge of its relevance to our shared goal of cooperating to strengthen global health security and reduce the impacts of infectious diseases on our societies. Our governments strongly affirm the common view that such cooperation should not be undermined, but rather promoted and reinforced. Pursuant to Article X, we encourage all Biological Weapons Convention States Parties to work together, including at the forthcoming Review Conference, in support of this goal.”

Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors’ Group on Nuclear Safety and Security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant

The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group issued a statement this week reiterating the G7 Foreign Ministers August 10 statement in “support of the IAEA’s efforts to promote nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.” The statement explains, “The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group remains profoundly concerned by the serious threat the continued control of Ukrainian nuclear facilities by Russian armed forces pose to the safety and security of these facilities. These actions significantly raise the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endanger the population of Ukraine, neighbouring states, and the international community. The Russian Federation must immediately withdraw its troops from within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and respect Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty. We reaffirm that the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and the electricity that it produces rightly belong to Ukraine and stress that attempts by Russia to disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian power grid would be unacceptable. We underline that Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant should not be used for military activities or the storage of military material.”

The statement also reads, “As founders of the G7-led Global Partnership, we have worked together with Ukraine for more than 20 years to increase the safety and security of its nuclear facilities. We therefore have a particular responsibility to support international efforts aimed at sustaining these facilities and assisting Ukraine in countering the serious risks Russia’s war of aggression poses to the safety and security of Ukrainian nuclear installations.”

It concludes with “We deeply regret that Russia blocked consensus at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference because it refused to accept responsibility for the grave situation around the safeguards, safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. This cannot be seen as an act of good faith. Every other NPT state supported the draft outcome. Even though it was not adopted, it provides a solid blueprint for progress on all three NPT pillars.”

“Characterizing the Risks of North Korean Chemical and Biological Weapons, Electromagnetic Pulse, and Cyber Threats”

The RAND Corporation recently published this free ebook discussing the DPRK’s WMD capabilities. “The authors present a theory of deterrence and suggest how the ROK-U.S. alliance could rein in North Korean efforts to augment or enhance its WMD and cyber capabilities and deter the North from attacking the ROK and beyond. Throughout, the authors acknowledge the uncertainties involved and argue that any effective action on the part of the ROK-U.S. alliance will require recognizing and managing those uncertainties.”

“Learning, Relearning, and Not Learning the Lessons of COVID-19”

Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, an alumnus of the Biodefense Program, recently published this OpEd in The Hill. In it, he “…makes the case that to date, there has been no coherent national discussion on the COVID-19 gaps and shortfalls we experienced in our national pandemic preparedness and response systems. These concerns cut across federal departments and agencies; state and local governments; and the private sector, and therefore need to be considered and coordinated across all of these stakeholders.” He further explains, “However, at lower levels changes—policy, organizational and resource decisions—are being implemented piecemeal. Furthermore, despite two and a half years of living through COVID-19, as the money pox outbreak demonstrates we continue to flounder, often repeating the same mistakes. In short, we are “learning, relearning and not learning the lessons of COVID-19.”

“Controlling Chemical Weapons in the New International Order”

National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) recently published this edition of CSWMD Proceedings. In it, “Mr. John Caves, CSWMD Distinguished Fellow, and Dr. Seth Carus, NDU Emeritus Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy examine the breakdown in consensus decision-making at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and place this development in the context of Russia, China, and Iran’s larger challenge to a rules-based international order. The article further considers how this dynamic may play out in the OPCW in the coming years and discusses how the United States can continue to use the Chemical Weapons Convention and OPCW to defend the international norm against chemical weapons while better protecting itself and its allies and partners from a greater chemical weapons threat.”

“Optimizing and Unifying Infection Control Precautions for Respiratory Viral Infections”

The Journal of Infectious Diseases recently published this piece by Klompas and Rhee discussing current guidelines on respiratory precautions for healthcare workers. In it, they argue “…it is high time to modify infection control guidelines for respiratory viruses to recognize that that their transmission is more alike than different and that most transmission is attributable to aerosol inhalation. We recommend switching from the current confusing and non-evidence-based mosaic of different precautions for different viruses to one universal set of respiratory viral precautions that includes wearing gowns, gloves, eye protection, and fitted respirators in well-ventilated spaces.”

“Latest from the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, Issue 3: Summer 2022”

The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence recently released the latest edition of its newsletter recently. This one introduces a new section by the Assistant Director-General for Health Emergency Intelligence, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, and a new collaboration with the Hasso Plattner Institute. It also provides updates on the WHO’s monkeypox response and upcoming events sponsored by the Hub.

“Three Solutions for Public Health—And One Dangerous Idea”

Dr. Tom Frieden, who directed the CDC during the Obama administration, recently published an opinion piece in the Atlantic discussing the way forward for his former agency. In it, he writes, “But even if the CDC’s proposed reforms succeed, much of what’s broken is outside of the agency’s control. The United States suffers from chronic underfunding of local, city, and state public-health departments; a health-care system that is not structured to provide consistent care to patients; lack of standardization across states for collecting and reporting anonymized data for disease detection and response; and a broad increase in political polarization that shrinks the space for nonpartisan action and organizations. White House actions under both Republican and Democratic administrations have undermined the CDC’s credibility, its freedom to speak directly to the media and public, and the public’s perception of its scientific independence.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

The Lawfare Podcast: Sean Ekins and Filippa Lentzos on a Teachable Moment for Dual-Use

“Back in March, a team of researchers published an article in Nature Machine Intelligence showing that a drug discovery company’s AI-powered molecule generator could have a dangerous dual use: The model could design thousands of new biochemical weapons in a matter of hours that were equally as toxic as, if not more toxic than, the nerve agent VX.

Lawfare associate editor Tia Sewell sat down with two of the paper’s authors: Dr. Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science & international security at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and Dr. Sean Ekins, CEO of Collaborations Pharmaceuticals. They discussed the story of their discovery and their reaction to it, as well as how we should think about dual-use artificial intelligence threats more broadly as new technologies expand the potential for malicious use. They also got into why governments need to work more proactively to address the challenges of regulating machine learning software.” Find this episode here.

Technologically Speaking Episode 7: Speed Up the Cleanup

DHS S&T’s podcast “Technologically Speaking has a sobering and important conversation about preparing for chemical and biological contamination. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, the impact of such an event would be staggering. S&T exists, in part, to research and test tools for complex cleanup scenarios that require acting quickly, efficiently and with confidence that hazardous material, like anthrax, is decontaminated. Guest Dr. Don Bansleben, a program manager at S&T specializing in chemical and biological threat detection, talks about the current work S&T is doing with U.S. government partners to prepare for these scenarios.” Find this episode and others here.

Public Health On Call Episode 512: FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf on Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccines, Combatting Misinformation, and Building Trust

From Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health-“Throughout COVID-19, the FDA has been among many government agencies charged with communicating lifesaving information. Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf talks with Dr. Josh Sharfstein about how the politicization of the pandemic raised the stakes for the FDA and how the agency is learning to adapt in an age of rampant misinformation. They also discuss the FDA’s consideration of bivalent vaccines for authorization and what’s next for the pandemic response.” Check it out here.

Interested in Studying Biodefense? Come to Our Information Sessions!

Are you a Pandora Report reader who just can’t get enough? Consider applying to the Schar School’s Biodefense Program, which offers several graduate certificates, an MS in Biodefense (both in-person and online), and a PhD in Biodefense if you’re really into this. On September 15 at 7 pm ET AND October 11 at 12 pm ET, you can join us virtually to learn more about admissions for the MS and graduate certificates, including info on the application process, student experiences, and graduate outcomes. On September 13 at 7 pm ET, prospective PhD students are invited to the Schar School PhD Virtual Open House to learn about the school’s different doctoral programs and hear from faculty members.

Public Meeting-Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

The 21st PACCARB public meeting is tentatively being planned as an in-person event on September 12 and 13 from 9-5 pm ET each day. The meeting will focus on pandemic preparedness and AMR policy. This meeting is open to the public. Members of the public can choose to attend in-person (attendance will be limited) or view the meeting via webcast. The meeting will be held at the Tysons Corner Marriott, 8028 Leesburg Pike, Tysons Corner, Virginia, 22182. Learn more and register here.

Protecting Genetic Information Against Cyber Threats

Join CRDF Global for this event on September 13 at 10 am ET. “Our current lack of genetic information security is more than just an issue for privacy. Our adversaries’ access to our genetic data can be used to find and exploit weaknesses. Genetic data would be required for a bioweapon to be developed against a specific ethnic group or an individual. For tracking a pandemic or potential bioweapon, genetic data from a pathogen must be generated. This pathogen’s genetic data could then be used to recreate and/or enhance its potential. To protect against these threats, we need a genetic information system that protects human and pathogen information from exfiltration. Our current lab environment lacks appropriate cybersecurity, and enhancing lab cybersecurity is no simple task. Join us as will discuss these threats and what can be done to mitigate them.” Learn more and register here.

Monkeypox: Have We Learned Anything from COVID-19?

The Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University will be hosting an event on monkeypox later this month. “Dr. Gerald Parker will moderate a panel of experts, including Drs. Robert Carpenter, Syra Madad, Jennifer A. Shuford, and Robert Kadlec, as they explore the Monkeypox phenomenon. Recently declared a public health crisis by the federal government, Monkeypox is the thing on everyone’s mind. The panel will answer questions such as: Are we making the same mistakes with Monkeypox as we did with COVID-19? How can we do better with this and future pandemic threats? Is this something we need to be concerned about? And more.” This event will take place on September 19 at 5:30 pm CT. Register for the virtual event at tx.ag/dgxNOXU.

Global Patterns of COVID-19-related Violence Against Health Workers

“In many countries, the pandemic has increased violence against physicians, nurses, and other health care providers, partly due to widespread fear and mis/disinformation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Human Rights will gather experts from the global health community for a virtual session examining this worrying development, along with strategies being taken to protect and safeguard the rights of health personnel. The session will include discussion of a recent report by the International Council of Nurses, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Hospital Federation, and World Medical Association on current practices to prevent, reduce, or mitigate violence against health care.” This event will take place on September 21 at 10 am ET. Register here.

Complexity of Pandemics No 2-Exploring Insights from the Social Sciences for Collaborative Intelligence

Join Prof. Michael Bang Petersen (Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark and Founder of the HOPE project), Dr. Julienne Ngoundoung Anoko (Focal Point for Social Science / Risk Communication and Community Engagement at the WHO Health Emergencies Programme’s Regional Office for Africa in Dakar, Senegal), Prof. Ilona Kickbusch (Founder and Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva, Switzerland), and Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu (WHO Assistant Director-General for the Division of Health Emergency Intelligence and Surveillance Systems) for a session “devoted to highlighting the importance of integrating insights from the social sciences into public health surveillance approaches to better avert and manage epidemic and pandemic risks.” This event will be livestreamed on the WHO’s YouTube channel on September 22 at 12:30 pm ET.

2022 BSL4ZNet International Conference

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network is hosting its international conference virtually this year from September 8 through October 13. The conference will convene under the overarching theme of Forging ahead stronger: Strengthening zoonotic disease preparedness. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and best practices, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world. Session 4 on October 13 will feature a panel on “The Future of Global Biorisk Management” featuring our own Dr. Greg Koblentz alongside King’s College London’s Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Mayra Ameneiros, Dr. Rocco Casagrande of Gryphon Scientific, and Dr. Loren Matheson of Defence Research and Development Canada. Learn more and register for the conference here.

Biodefense PhD Student Named Druckman Fellow

Danyale Kellogg, a PhD student in the Biodefense Program, was recently named the Schar School’s latest Druckman Fellow. This fellowship is awarded to support a student’s research that falls into areas like global governance, non-military responses to threats to national and international security, and the study of conflict. Kellogg’s research focuses on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in infectious disease outbreak responses, paying particular attention to the PRC’s failures to notify the WHO of outbreaks in accordance with the IHR and threats such issues pose to international security.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Editorial Fellowships Application Now Open

The Bulletin is now accepting application for its editorial fellows through September 15. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will appoint editorial fellows this fall in two coverage areas: climate change and biosecurity. Editorial fellows will have one-year terms, during which time they will be expected to write four (4) articles or columns (i.e., about one article or column per quarter). The fellows will be paid a $750 honorarium per article or column, for a potential total of $3,000. These will be non-resident appointments, i.e. fellows can write for the Bulletin from anywhere. Fellows will not be employees of the Bulletin. These one-year fellowships are renewable, upon excellent performance. Because the Bulletin is an international publication, fellows need not live in the United States.” Learn more and apply here.

Pandora Report: 3.4.2016

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 8.16.15

It looks like the blog isn’t the only place with a lull during the summer. This week was oddly slow for news; maybe it’s an August thing? For our top stories we’ve got ISIS with chemical weapons and, from our neighbor to the north, a disease diagnosing fabric. We’ve even got a few stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

U.S. Investigating ‘Credible’ Reports that ISIS Used Chemical Weapons

The U.S. is investigating what it believes are credible reports that ISIS fighters used mustard agent against Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Makhmour in Northern Iraq. ISIS posted about the attack on social media, but American officials have stated they have independent information that left them believing that a chemical weapon was used. A German Ministry of Defense spokesman echoed that they cannot confirm or rule out that a chemical weapons attack occurred. The major question for U.S. officials is to determine if it was mustard gas, and if so, how ISIS came to possess it.

CNN—“Blake Narenda, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau, said, “We continue to take these and all allegations of chemical weapons use very seriously. As in previous instances of alleged ISIL use of chemicals as weapons, we are aware of the reports and are seeking additional information. We continue to monitor these reports closely, and would further stress that use of any chemicals or biological material as a weapon is completely inconsistent with international standards and norms regarding such capabilities.”

CNN has previously reported claims from monitoring groups that ISIS used chlorine weapons against Kurdish forces.”

Halifax Scientist Develops High-Tech Fabric that Helps Diagnose Diseases

Yes, you read that right. Christa Brosseau, an analytical chemist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is working on the development of a chemical sensor which can be built into fabric and can detect diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.  How is this even possible? First the scientists make Nanoparticles, then aggregate those particles which ends up as a silver Nanoparticle paste. That paste can be placed on a fabric chip and it then ready to use. The fabric chip interacts with bodily fluids like sweat, saliva, or urine, and is then scanned for information.

CTV—“The technology picks up disease biomarkers and the scientists are able to get results in approximately 30 seconds, by using hand held units, the size of a TV remote control, to scan the samples. The size of the units makes them convenient for working in the field.

Eventually, the scientists hope to see the technology deployed in exercise headbands, or cloth inserts in infant diapers, to better monitor the state of health.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: U.S. Army

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

Pandora Report 7.11.15

Sorry for the late update here at Pandora Report. We’ve got how the plague turned so deadly, an Ebola update, and of course other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

These Two Mutations Turned Not-so-Deadly Bacteria Into the Plague

Researchers at Northwestern University have been investigating how Yersinia pestis—the bacteria that causes bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague—became the infective cause of the Black Death. They discovered two mutations that help to explain the bacteria’s lethality.

Smithsonian.com—“The first mutation gave the bacteria the ability to make a protein called Pla. Without Pla, Y. pestis couldn’t infect the lungs. The second mutation allowed the bacteria to enter deeper into the bodies, say through a bite, to infect blood and the lymphatic system. In other words, first the plague grew deadly, then it found a way to leap more easily from infected fleas or rodents to humans.

Ebola Strain Found on Teen in Liberia Genetically Similar to Viruses in Same Area Months Ago

I’m sure you’ve heard that there were three new cases of Ebola in Liberia—a country that was declared free of the disease on May 9. According to the World Health Organization, samples taken from a teenager who died from Ebola two weeks prior indicate that the disease is genetically similar to strains that infected people in the same area over six months ago—while the outbreak was still ongoing.

US News and World Report—“That finding by genetic sequencing suggests it is unlikely the virus was caught from travel to infected areas of Guinea or Sierra Leone, the group said. “It also makes it unlikely that this has been caused by a new emergence from a natural reservoir, such as a bat or other animal,” it said.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: en.wikipedia

America’s War on Terror: Democracy is No Panacea

Nine days after the attacks of September 11, the President declared America’s war on terror had begun. After the Bush Administration perceived early successes in Afghanistan, spreading democracy became one of the key policies supporting America’s strategy for the war on terror. Over time, the President came to view the promotion of democracy as a positive and transformational change agent for the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries. Empirical analysis, however, suggests democracy promotion did not help America achieve its broad objectives in the war on terror, though democracy indicators did marginally improve.          

This is Part 4 of 4 of Erik Goepner‘s paper. In case you missed them, read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3; the full paper is available here.

America’s efforts in the war on terror have not achieved the desired objectives. Whether measuring the number of global terror attacks, number of attacks against the U.S. homeland, fatalities caused by terrorists, number of Islamist-inspired terror groups or the amount of fighters aligned with Islamist-inspired terror groups, the data suggests U.S. efforts in the war on terror have achieved disappointing results. During the 12 years prior to 9/11, terrorists committed an average of just over 3,200 attacks annually. In 2001, that number dropped to under 1,900 attacks. Since the U.S. initiated its war on terror, however, the average number of attacks has climbed to almost 4,300 per year.[1] Regarding the U.S. homeland, the attacks of 9/11 were a statistical outlier, making it difficult to determine if other similarly sized attacks might have followed. In the 13 years before 2001, there were five Islamist-inspired terror attacks in America. That compares to four attacks in the 13 years since.[2] Another 63 Islamist-inspired terror attacks against the homeland have been thwarted in the past 13 years, as well.[3]

Similar to the rise in worldwide terror attacks, the number of fatalities have likewise climbed, but at a faster rate. Nearly 6,500 people were killed worldwide per year in terror attacks for the decade-plus before 9/11. In 2001, more than 7,700 were killed. Then, in the 12 years since, the annual average has risen to just under 9,500. The before and after numbers for U.S. citizens killed by acts of terrorism are similarly discomforting, with 45 killed per year before 9/11 and 64 each year since.[4]

A final macro measurement for the war on terror examines the number of Islamist-inspired groups identified by the Department of State (DoS) as foreign terrorist organizations and how many fighters comprise those groups. Since 2000, the overall number of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) increased by 86 percent, from 29 to 54. The subset comprised of Islamist-inspired FTOs, though, grew by 185 percent, from 13 to 37 groups.[5] Moreover, the number of fighters within those groups has dramatically increased from an estimated 32,200 in 2000 to more than 110,000 in 2013.[6]

Unlike the overall measures of performance for the war on terror which have all worsened since 2001, governance and democracy measures are not as clear-cut. Freedom House’s indicators show a marginal, though statistically insignificant, improvement for the 47 Muslim-majority countries since 2001. The average political rights and civil liberties’ scores for all Muslim-majority states were essentially identical in the years prior to, and including, 2001. Since that time, they have improved by nearly 6 percent (Freedom House scores range from 1 “most free” to 7 “least free”).[7] However, a chi-square statistical analysis indicates the difference in pre- and post-9/11 scores were not statistically significant (X2=7.819, p=0.729). Though insignificant, the modest improvement occurred as average freedom scores declined worldwide for the past nine years.[8]

Afghanistan and Iraq had the lowest possible Freedom House scores for the years prior to 9/11 (i.e., 7). Scores for both countries have improved since, though neither has yet been listed among the 125 countries currently meeting the definition of an “electoral democracy.” The Polity IV Project from the Center for Systemic Peace provides another governance measurement. Their assessment of Afghanistan is unchanged from 2001. Throughout the past 13 years, they have assessed the country as “moderately fragmented,” meaning 10 to 25 percent of Afghanistan is ruled by authorities unconnected to the central government.[9] The assessment of Iraq, though, has changed rather dramatically. In the decade prior to the U.S. invasion, they assessed Iraq as extremely autocratic. Beginning in 2003 and holding for the next six years, they assessed Iraq as seriously fragmented, with between 25 and 50 percent of the country being ruled by authorities that were not connected to the central government. Then, beginning in 2010, Iraq was listed as slightly democratic and that assessment remained through 2013, which was the last year recorded. [10] No assessment has been made since the Islamic State seized sizeable portions of the country, so it is quite likely that the next report will list Iraq as moderately or seriously fragmented.

In conclusion, the decision to include democracy promotion as a key part of the war on terror did not happen immediately. Rather, it appears to have occurred in response to perceived early successes in Afghanistan. Policymakers apparently missed or ignored much of the research and intelligence available at the time that highlighted the numerous challenges to successfully democratizing Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, the research since 9/11 largely corroborates the earlier research. Finally, the quantitative analysis indicates democracy promotion did not help achieve the desired outcomes in the war on terror, though modest gains in democracy measures were observed.

Image Credit: Cpl. James L. Yarboro


[1] Data from the Global Terrorism Database, available at http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/.
[2] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2013). Global Terrorism Database [globalterrorismdb_0814dist-1.xlsx]. Retrieved from http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd.
[3] David Inserra and James Phillips, “67 Islamist Terrorist Plots Since 9/11: Spike in Plots Inspired by Terrorist Groups, Unrest in Middle East,” The Heritage Foundation, April 22, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2015/04/67-islamist-terrorist-plots-since-911-spike-in-plots-inspired-by-terrorist-groups-unrest-in-middle-east.
[4] Data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2013). Global Terrorism Database [globalterrorismdb_0814dist-1.xlsx]. Retrieved from http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd.
[5] Bureau of Public Affairs Department Of State. The Office of Website Management, “2000 (Patterns of Global Terrorism),” March 23, 2006, http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/ 2000/; Bureau of Public Affairs Department Of State. The Office of Website Management, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2013,” U.S. Department of State, April 30, 2014, http:// http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2013/index.htm; Martha Crenshaw, “Mapping Militant Organizations,” Stanford University, accessed March 27, 2015, http://web.stanford.edu /group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups.
[6] Martha Crenshaw, “Mapping Militant Organizations,” Stanford University, accessed March 27, 2015, http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups. See also Department of State Country Reports and Patterns of Global Terrorism at http://www. state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/.
[7] Data from https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world#.VTwGJBd422k.
[8] Arch Puddington, “Discarding Democracy: A Return to the Iron Fist,” Freedom House, 2015, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world-2015/discarding-democracy-return-iron-fist#.VRIay2Z422k.
[9] Monty Marhsall, Ted Gurr, and Keith Jaggers, Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2013: Dataset Users’ Manual (Vienna, VA: Center for Systemic Peace, 2014), 13.
[10] Monty Marshall, Ted Gurr, and Keith Jaggers. 2014. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2013. [p4v2013-2.xls]. Retrieved from http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html.

America’s War on Terror: Democracy is No Panacea

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the scholarly research has burgeoned, enabling a more thorough examination of the Bush Administration’s policy choice to aggressively promote democracy as part of their overall war on terror strategy. Scholars have advanced a number of compelling findings and arguments about the Bush Administration’s policymaking process, as well as why democracy has proved so problematic in both countries.

This is Part 3 of 4 of Erik Goepner‘s paper. In case you missed them, read Part 1 and Part 2.

James Pfiffner suggests President Bush did not employ a systematic decision-making process with respect to Iraq, and that the president preferred substantive discussions with only a small cadre of his closest advisors.[1] This style could easily result in intelligence and research being overlooked, or the close-knit group unwittingly succumbing to groupthink.

Regarding the challenges of democratizing both countries, researchers point to the historic challenges of Muslim-majority states adopting democratic norms, ethnic and / or religious fractionalization, lack of liberal institutions or culture, poor rule of law, and the animus felt towards the democracy promoter (i.e., the U.S.) by many in the Muslim world.[2]

In addition, two lesser-known arguments are germane and will be addressed further. The first focuses on how the Bush Administration promoted democracy and the second looks at who was being democratized. While the idea of America promoting democracy abroad is nothing new, how it has been promoted over time has changed. Jonathan Monten outlines the two predominate ways in which America has historically sought to export democracy.[3] The first, and preferred choice until the 20th century, relied on America’s example, akin to the shining city on a hill. America’s efforts to win other nations to democratic forms of governance primarily took place within America’s borders, such that other nations could see the example and be enticed to emulate it. Monten refers to the second method as “vindicationism.” It includes setting a positive example, but adds active, external measures to promote democracy. President Bush, Monten argues, embraced a version of vindicationism-plus by also adding a coercive element. Monten goes on to say the U.S.’ hegemonic status not only made coercion possible, but in some respects almost unavoidable.[4] Had U.S. power not been such an overmatch for any would-be competitor, the Bush Administration would likely have been less bold. Policymakers believed their use of power was virtuous. As a result, they did not consider that their use of power might be coercive, unwelcome, or self-seeking.[5]

Moreover, the Bush Administration believed democratic success would beget democratic success, such that bandwagoning would result rather than other nations and actors attempting to balance against U.S. power.[6] Assumed bandwagoning also contributed to the expectation that U.S. military power would facilitate a pacific transition to democracy beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. As the President claimed, a “free Iraq can be an example of reform and progress to all the Middle East.”[7]

The second argument looks at who was being democratized. It does not appear that U.S. policymakers gave any consideration to the mental health status of the Afghan or Iraqi populations prior to pursuing a policy of democratization. Specifically, the effects of decades of severe trauma visited upon both populations were ignored—Afghanistan for 20 of the 21 years preceding the U.S. invasion, and Iraq for the preceding 17 years.

Persons who have been heavily traumatized, similar to the Afghans and Iraqis, are more likely to succumb to learned helplessness.[8] This psychological phenomenon manifests over time, as an individual increasingly perceives no connection between their own efforts and the outcomes that result. Self-efficacy gives way to hopelessness. As a result, the individual no longer puts forth effort, instead they surrender to their circumstances.[9] The behavioral and cognitive changes that frequently accompany severe trauma would appear to inhibit the successful initiation of democracy.

The decision to include democracy promotion as a key part of the war on terror did not happen immediately. Rather, it appears to have occurred in response to perceived early successes in Afghanistan. Policymakers apparently missed or ignored much of the research and intelligence available at the time that indicated the numerous challenges to successfully democratizing Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, the research since then tends to corroborate the earlier research.

Next week, part 4 will take a final look at democracy promotion as a key part of America’s war on terror strategy. This last examination will focus on the numbers. How effective has the U.S. been in democratizing Afghanistan, Iraq and the broader region? And, more broadly, how have the efforts to democratize affected the overall achievement of U.S. goals in the war on terror? Erik Goepner’s full paper is available here.


[1] James Pfiffner, “Decisionmaking, Intelligence, and the Iraq War,” in Intelligence and National Security Policymaking on Iraq: British and American Perspectives (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), 217–8.
[2] Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”; Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic 266, no. 3 (1990): 47–60; Samuel Huntington, “The Lonely Superpower,” Foreign Affairs 78, no. 2 (March 1, 1999): 35–49; Francis Fukuyama, “Why is Democracy Performing So Poorly?” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 1 (January 2015): 13.
[3] Jonathan Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy,” International Security 29, no. 4 (April 1, 2005): 112–115.
[4] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 116.
[5] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 146.
[6] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 148–9.
[7] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 150.
[8] Steven Maier, “Exposure to the Stressor Environment Prevents the Temporal Dissipation of Behavioral Depression/learned Helplessness,” Biological Psychiatry 49, no. 9 (May 1, 2001): 763; Neta Bargai, Gershon Ben-Shakhar, and Arieh Y. Shalev, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Depression in Battered Women: The Mediating Role of Learned Helplessness,” Journal of Family Violence 22, no. 5 (June 6, 2007): 268, 272, 274.
[9] Lyn Abramson, Martin Seligman, and John Teasdale, “Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87, no. 1 (1978): 50.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy

AMERICA’S WAR ON TERROR: DEMOCRACY IS NO PANACEA

America’s goal to democratize Afghanistan started haphazardly, no doubt buffeted by the chaos of the days immediately following 9/11. However, what began as a relative afterthought soon became the perceived cure-all for Islamic extremism—bring democracy to the Middle East and watch the underlying causes of terrorism erode away. As the Bush administration began developing that policy, a fair amount of scholarly research and intelligence (now declassified) was available to assist policymakers.

This is Part 2 of 4 of Erik Goepner‘s paper. Read Part 1 here

The pre-9/11 scholarly research

The pre-9/11 scholarly research could have helped answer two key questions:

  1. Would democracy be likely to succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  2. Would a shift from autocracy to democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq help reduce the number of terrorists and terror attacks?

The research suggested that establishing a functioning democracy would be quite challenging in either country. Regarding democracy in Muslim states, ample research cautioned that many democracy enablers—cultural and institutional—could not be found within Islamic tradition.[1] Several notable scholars agreed obstacles existed, but they assessed them as surmountable.[2] Looking at democracy more broadly, the eminent democracy scholar, Seymour Martin Lipset, highlighted cultural factors as determinants of success, cautioning that culture is “extraordinarily difficult to manipulate.”[3] Seven years prior to 9/11, Lipset wrote that successful democracies in Muslim-majority countries were “doubtful.” He argued that an enduring democracy necessitated a connection between efficacy and legitimacy that could be observed by the population. Progress in either the political or economic arenas, he said, would build perceived legitimacy and help cement democracy.[4] With respect to Afghanistan in particular, Robert Barro observed that democracy was unlikely to take hold because of low education levels, the marginalization of women, and the patchwork of different ethnicities.[5] Fareed Zakaria stressed the potential problems associated with ethnic fractionalization and democracy, noting the chance of war could actually increase if democracy were introduced in a country that did not yet have a liberal culture or institutions.[6] Similarly, Amitai Etzioni, a former advisor to President Carter, noted the difficulties of a society jumping from “the Stone Age to even a relatively modern one.” He pointed to the failed experiences of the World Bank and U.S. foreign-aid programs, ultimately concluding that democratic failure would result in Afghanistan.[7] These observations highlight the tension between the legitimate aspirations of President Bush and his national security team and the numerous obstacles that the pre-9/11 research had already identified.

States in transition from autocracy to democracy have more political violence within their borders than do either strongly democratic or autocratic states. In terms of stable, entrenched democracies, the research is divided on whether democracy reduces terrorism more effectively than other forms of government or not. On the one hand, scholars like Rudy Rummel and Ted Gurr contend that democracies provide a system within which grievances can be non-violently addressed, whereas autocracies are much more prone to political violence because they deny their citizens alternate forms of political communication.[8] On the opposite side, researchers like Havard Hegre suggest that democracies are home to increased amounts of political expression, both non-violent and violent.[9] Empirical studies suggest developed and stable democracies do have lower levels of political violence, but so do harshly authoritarian states. Higher levels of political violence, however, tend to occur in intermediate regimes, such as infant democracies.[10]

Based on the pre-war intelligence

The Bush administration planned the Iraq War for more than a year, and authorities have declassified much of the pre-war intelligence. As a result, ample intelligence is now available to the public. Conversely, for the war in Afghanistan, essentially no intelligence regarding governance issues is available since the war came quickly after the 9/11 attacks and the military had no plans for Afghanistan until after September 11th (beyond tactical plans to attack bin Laden).[11] Much of the available intelligence regarding Afghanistan comes from the 9/11 Commission Report, but it does not include useful information for analyzing the decision to democratize. Therefore, only an analysis of the pre-war Iraq intelligence is provided.

The policy choice to promote democracy appears to have discounted significant portions of the pre-war intelligence. In August 2002, a CIA report noted that Iraqi culture has been “inhospitable to democracy.” The report went on to say that absent comprehensive and enduring US and Western support, the likelihood of achieving even “partial democratic successes” was “poor.”[12]

In late 2002, the CIA provided a slightly more optimistic assessment which said most Shia would conclude that a “secular and democratic Iraq served their interests.”[13] At the same time, though, a DIA report asserted that Shia preferences could not be accurately assessed because of the fear and repression they lived under.[14] Several months later, the CIA released another assessment indicating the potential for democratic stability would be “limited” over the next two years, but a US-led coalition “could” prepare the way for democracy in five to 10 years.[15]

Additionally, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) published two Intelligence Community Assessments in January 2003, which the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence described as the “best available ‘baseline’” of prewar assessments on postwar Iraq.[16] The reports described democratic concepts as “alien to most Arab Middle Eastern political cultures.”[17] The NIC also noted “Iraqi political culture does not foster liberalism or democracy.” As a result, they assessed the potential for the democratization of Iraq as a “long, difficult, and probably turbulent process.”[18] In a particularly prescient set of comments, the NIC assessed that “political transformation is the task…least susceptible to outside intervention and management.”[19]

Considerable scholarly research and intelligence were available to policymakers before the decision was made to aggressively pursue democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader region. The numerous cautions contained in the intelligence and research, however, were either missed or ignored.

Next week, part 3 will examine the research published since 9/11 in light of the decision to pursue broad democratization. Erik Goepner’s full paper is available here.


[1] Alfred C. Stepan, “Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations,’” Journal of Democracy 11, no. 4 (2000): 47.
[2] Niloofar Afari et al., “Psychological Trauma and Functional Somatic Syndromes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Psychosomatic Medicine 76, no. 1 (January 2014): 2–11; John Esposito and John Voll, Islam and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 1996).
[3] Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Centrality of Political Culture,” Journal of Democracy 1, no. 4 (1990): 82–3.
[4] Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” American Sociological Review 59, no. 1 (February 1, 1994): 6, 17.
[5] Robert Barro, “Don’t Bank on Democracy in Afghanistan,” Business Week, January 21, 2002, 18.
[6] Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, December 1997, 35.
[7] Amitai Etzioni, “USA Can’t Impose Democracy on Afghans,” USA Today, October 10, 2001.
[8] W. Eubank and L. Weinberg, “Terrorism and Democracy: Perpetrators and Victims,” Terrorism and Political Violence 13, no. 1 (March 1, 2001): 156.
[9] Eubank and Weinberg, “Terrorism and Democracy.”
[10] Håvard Hegre, Tanja Ellingsen, Scott Gates and Nils Petter Gleditsch, “Toward a Democratic Civil Peace? Democracy, Political Change, and Civil War, 1816-1992,” American Political Science Review, no. 01 (March 2001): 42; Daniel Byman, The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad (Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), 158–9.
[11] The 9/11 Commission Report, 135–7, 208, 332.
[12] United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on Prewar Intelligence Assessments About Postwar Iraq (Washington, D.C., May 25, 2007), 103.
[13] U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on Prewar Intelligence, 100.
[14] U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on Prewar Intelligence, 93–4.
[15] U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on Prewar Intelligence, 97.
[16] U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on Prewar Intelligence, 4.
[17] National Intelligence Council, Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq, January 2003, 30.
[18] National Intelligence Council, Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq, January 2003, 5.
[19] National Intelligence Council, Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq, 9.


Image Credit: Library of Congress