Happy Friday! This week we are tackling reporting on the WHO’s investigation into COVID-19’s origin, estimates that counter China’s official COVID-19 death count, new insight into the death of Pablo Neruda, and more. New publications listed in this issue include Rolf Ekéus’ book discussing his time leading UNSCOM and a recent CBWNet working paper authored by Ralf Trapp. New professional opportunities are also included in this week’s announcement section alongside our weekly trivia question.
Biodefense Alumnus Named 2023 Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow
Matthew Ferreira (Biodefense MS ’22) was recently selected as a 2023 Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) fellow by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. Ferreira joins a class of 31 fellows selected from a pool of more than 227 applicants. He told the Schar School, “I am so excited to be accepted into the ELBI Fellowship program…I am looking forward to meeting and connecting with the others in the Fellowship class as well as alumni of the program. Many of the professionals and scholars that I have had the pleasure to work with have participated in ELBI, so I’m honored to have the chance to meet and learn from this cohort of diverse and talented people in the coming year.”
Read more about Ferreira and his time in the Biodefense Graduate Program here.
Confusion Over Nature WHO COVID-19 Investigation Reporting
This week, Nature published a news article indicating the WHO had abandoned the planned second phase of its investigation into the origin of COVID-19. In it, Smriti Mallapaty began by writing “The World Health Organization (WHO) has quietly shelved the second phase of its much-anticipated scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing ongoing challenges over attempts to conduct crucial studies in China, Nature has learned. Researchers say they are disappointed that the investigation isn’t going ahead, because understanding how the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 first infected people is important for preventing future outbreaks. But without access to China, there is little that the WHO can do to advance the studies, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. “Their hands are really tied.”
Naturally, this caused quite the ruckus. However, the WHO was quick to pushback and clarify that it has no plans to abandon this investigation. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove released a statement denying the claims. In Nature‘s reporting, Van Kerkhove is quoted saying “There is no phase two,” to the investigation and that “the plan has changed,” as “The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins.” However, on Wednesday, she clarified-“I think we need to be perfectly clear that WHO has not abandoned studying the origins of Covid 19. We have not, and we will not.” As Health Policy Watch explains, she elaborated with “In a sense, phase two became the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of novel pathogens (SAGO),” she clarified. SAGO held its first meeting in November 2021 and was established as a permanent advisory group to work on drawing up a framework to understand the origins of not just COVID-19 but any future outbreaks. “So the creation of SAGO was in effect, our best effort to move this work forward.”
On issues with the PRC’s cooperation (or lack thereof), she added “Studies that were recommended from the March 2021-WHO report, from the June 2022-SAGO report and studies that we’ve been recommending at the animal human interface and markets, on farms need to be conducted in China. We need cooperation from our colleagues there to advance our understanding…”
The WHO is not the only one investigating COVID-19’s origin either, with House Republicans launching their investigation into whether the pandemic began with an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. AP reports “The Republican chairmen of the House Oversight Committee and the Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic are seeking information, including from Dr. Anthony Fauci, concerning the idea that the coronavirus leaked accidentally from a Chinese lab.”
China-From CRISPR to COVID
China’s Post-Zero-COVID Wave
As China rolled back its Zero-COVID policies in early December, estimates and concerns about the deadly wave of infections the country faced abounded. This was particularly true as the new year travel season approached, as millions were set to travel from urban centers to their hometowns in rural areas across the country. Soon, reports of overflowing crematoriums and funeral parlors, sold out coffin makers, and sweeping infections coincided with continuously relaxing COVID-19 control policies. However, as of February 9, China has reported just 83,150 COVID-19 deaths, and leaders just declared a “decisive victory” against the virus. Of course, this is a number particularly difficult to believe in a country that has struggled so much with acquiring and delivering effective vaccines, relying instead on harsh lockdown and testing requirements.
As the New York Times explains, “The question of how many people died has enormous political relevance for the ruling Communist Party. Early in the pandemic, China’s harsh lockdowns largely kept the coronavirus at bay. Xi Jinping, the top leader, has portrayed that earlier success as evidence of China’s superiority over the West, a claim that would be hard to maintain with a high death toll.”
“The differences between China’s figures and researchers’ estimates are dramatic. The official numbers would give China the lowest death rate per capita of any major country over the entirety of the pandemic. But at the estimated levels of mortality, China would already have surpassed official rates of death in many Asian countries that never clamped down as long or as aggressively.”
So what gives? As we have discussed in the posts linked above, China is using much more narrow definitions of COVID-19 deaths, counting only those who died from respiratory failure and excluding those who died of liver, kidney, and even cardiac failure. Worse, the government quit counting COVID-19 deaths that occurred outside of hospitals which, coupled with the sudden absence of required testing and reporting, certainly had a major contribution to these suspicious numbers.
This piece from the New York Times discusses the numbers below and how experts at different institutions calculated them, including factors like China’s less effective vaccines, elderly populations, and more.
The He Jiankui Saga Continues
Biodefense Graduate Program Associate Professor Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently hosted an event along with her colleagues, titled “Looking Back into the Future: CRISPR and Social Values-BioGovernance Common’s Open Discussion with Chinese Academics.” Among other things, they highlight in their event summary that “We’ve exposed that there is little substance behind the ambitious Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) gene therapy that Dr. Jiankui He, the scientist behind the illegal heritable human genome editing, has been boasting about to global patients. We were concerned that he might endanger another vulnerable population if his new venture remains unchecked,” and “Our event nudged Chinese media to publicly challenge Dr. He for the first time on his DMD research. As a result Dr. He has announced that he will prioritise research rather than social media promotion.”
Nature also covered the event, highlighting He’s refusal to discuss his past work and potential challenges this will create in understanding other important ethical issues. The article explains “On Saturday, He spoke at a virtual and in-person bioethics event that was promoted as “the first time that Dr. He has agreed to interact with Chinese bioethicists and other CRISPR scientists in a public event”. But during the talk, He did not discuss his past work and refused to answer questions from the audience, responding instead that questions should be sent to him by email.”
It continues later with “Some researchers worry that interest in He Jiankui is diverting attention away from more important ethical issues around heritable genome editing. “This event puts the spotlight on He Jiankui — Will he apologize? Is he displaying remorse?,” says Marcy Darnovsky, a public interest advocate on the social implications of human biotechnology at the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, California. Instead, she thinks researchers should focus on discussing whether there is a medical justification for heritable genome editing.”
He, who was recently released from prison and is now working in Beijing, garnered sharp criticism in 2018 when he announced that a woman had given birth after He implanted into her uterus two embryos he had used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the CCR5 gene to make them resistant to HIV infection. It was later revealed that a second woman carried a third child whose genome He edited.
Was Pablo Neruda Murdered by a Physician Acting on Behalf of General Pinochet?
In late September 1973, the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda died in a clinic in Santiago, having checked out of a hospital earlier that day. The Nobel laureate was hospitalized with prostate cancer earlier that month, just as the coup d’état led by US-backed Augusto Pinochet ousted Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende. Neruda, a member of Chile’s Communist Party and close advisor to President Allende, checked out of the hospital after he claimed a physician injected him with an unknown substance. He reportedly died that evening of heart failure. In the decades since, his family and many members of the public have insisted he was murdered on the orders of Pinochet. This was spurred by reports from Manuel Araya, Neruda’s driver, that he witnessed Neruda tell his wife he believed the physician was ordered by Pinochet to kill him and the belief that Neruda was flying to Mexico to counter Pinochet in exile.
In 2013, a Chilean court ordered the launch of an investigation into Neruda’s death in light of these allegations and concerns. Neruda’s body was exhumed that same year, allowing scientists to test samples to better understand the poet’s death. This Wednesday, following a ten-year investigation by scientists in Chile, Canada, and Denmark, Chilean Judge Paola Plaza received the findings of an international report on the matter. The report indicates Pablo Neruda may have been killed by botulinum toxin-producing bacteria. The New York Times reports “The scientists found in Mr. Neruda’s body a potentially toxic type of bacteria that would not naturally occur there, and confirmed that it was in his system when he died, according to a two-page summary of the report shared with The New York Times. But they could not distinguish whether it was a toxic strain, and they could not conclude whether he was injected with the bacteria or if, instead, it came from contaminated food.”
The same article continues, “Yet the scientists conceded that other circumstantial evidence supported the theory of murder, including that in 1981, the military dictatorship poisoned political prisoners with bacteria possibly similar to the strain found in Mr. Neruda. (However, that method of poisoning stemmed from a chemical-weapons program the dictatorship began in 1976, three years after Mr. Neruda’s death.)”
While definitive answers remain out of reach in this case, Neruda’s is not the only contested death from this period. As the same article also explains “Yet Wednesday’s report and Ms. Plaza’s eventual conclusion may never sway some of the Chilean public. Karen Donoso, a Chilean historian, compared the uncertainty over Mr. Neruda’s death to some people’s lasting questions over the death of the leftist President Salvador Allende, who shot himself rather than fall into the hands of the military as it overthrew his government.”
“World’s Largest Collection of Viruses: Inside the Massive Biodefense Lab in Houston Area”
Houston’s ABC13 recently got an insider’s look at Galveston National Laboratory, located at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Their reporting offers an overview of the work that goes on at the facility, including in the BSL-4 area. As the station explains, “The Galveston National Laboratory is one of 14 U.S. facilities with BSL4 labs built by the National Institutes of Health in the years following the 2001 Anthrax attacks as a network of biodefense laboratories to “study viruses of pandemic potential and to develop medical countermeasures…The team is proud that in its 15 years, there has never been a “major laboratory incident resulting in the transmission of a disease” at the facility. This may be why most of us know little to nothing about their work.”
You can learn about the other 13 BSL-4 labs in the US and more around the world at globalbiolabs.org.
“Chemical and Microbiological Forensics in Investigations of Alleged Uses of Chemical and Biological Weapons – A Preliminary Analysis”
New from CBWNet: “In the latest CBWNet working paper, Ralf Trapp discusses the mechanisms for investigating the use of chemical and biological weapons and the development of scientific capacity for such investigations. The author highlights the importance of investigations in determining if a chemical or biological weapon was used, the type of agent used, and the origin of the weapon. The OPCW and the UN Secretary General’s Mechanism have set up systems with designated laboratories to investigate such allegations. However, there are still significant scientific challenges to be addressed, including validation of methods, agreed acceptance criteria, and distinguishing between natural and deliberate events. The paper emphasizes the need for continued investment and attention from governments to make progress in this field.”
“A Notorious Syria Conspiracy Theory is Definitively Debunked”
Brian Whitaker tackles the OPCW IIT’s newest report on the Assad regime’s use of CW in Douma and its debunking of disinformation surrounding the attack in this piece for New Lines Magazine. He writes in part, “The essence of the disinformation campaign was a refusal by its purveyors to accept that the Bashar al-Assad regime was conducting chemical warfare in Syria. Instead, they claimed all such attacks were “staged” by rebels to frame the regime and trigger a Western intervention. There was never any evidence for this, but it became the deniers’ standard response to reports of chemical attacks. The main reason the Douma attack in particular became a cause celebre for the deniers is it was one of only two chemical attacks (out of a total of over 300) that did in fact result in punitive airstrikes by Western powers. In addition, for the deniers, the emergence of two dissenters from within the OPCW and a series of leaked documents kept the issue alive longer than might otherwise have been expected. Meanwhile, Russia’s attempts to shield its Syrian ally led to political divisions in the OPCW, which threatened to undermine the global prohibition against chemical weapons.”
Iraq Disarmed: The Story Behind the Story of the Fall of Saddam
Rolf Ekéus, Chair of the UN Special Commission on Iraq from 1991-97, recently published his book covering his tenure and the organization’s struggles in disarming Iraq of its WMDs-Iraq Disarmed:
“The quest to disarm Iraq took place between two wars—one justified and right, the other a dreadful mistake, a violation of international law that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.” With these unvarnished words, Rolf Ekéus begins his political-thrilleresque story of the disarmament of Iraq—and the machinations that ultimately led to the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of ISIS.”
“After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the war that followed, the UN Security Council ruled that Iraq must rid itself of all weapons of mass destruction. The difficult, politically sensitive, and dangerous task of accomplishing this rested with the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), led by Ekéus, one of Sweden’s most seasoned diplomats. This was a radical experiment in UN governance—essentially conveying to one individual the power to conduct a disarmament program, with oversight only by the Security Council.”
“What followed were a succession of tense conversations with the Iraqi leadership, often-dangerous inspections, complex destruction processes, negotiations with Security Council representatives, and diplomatic maneuvering by world leaders. The recounting of these events lies at the heart of Ekéus’s personal narrative of disarmament history in the making, a narrative that adds substantially to the evidence that UNSCOM’s mission was successful and the 2003 war clearly illegal.”
“Crafted not in the interests of a political agenda, but rather for the sake of historical accuracy, Iraq Disarmed serves today as a sobering cautionary tale.”
“Private-Sector Research Could Pose a Pandemic Risk. Here’s What To Do About It”
Dr. Gerald Epstein, Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Defense University, recently published this piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In it he discusses biosecurity issues in the private sector, using the 2018 synthesis of horsepox in a Canadian academic lab and Larry Wayne Harris’ attempt to order freeze-dried Y. pestis as touch points. He writes in his conclusion, “With the growth of the bioeconomy and increasing amounts of privately funded life sciences research, restricting biosecurity policy only to government-funded institutions creates an ever-growing gap. Even though research with enhanced potential pandemic pathogens constitutes an extremely small fraction of the overall life science and biotechnology enterprise—and the fraction of that work done with private funding even smaller—the potential global consequences of such work make it increasingly important to develop governance approaches that go beyond attaching strings to US government dollars. Closing this gap within the United States is not sufficient, given the global extent of the life science enterprise and the global consequences of any lab-caused pandemic—but it is a necessary start.”
Strategic Trade Review, Winter/Spring 2023
The 10th issue of the Strategic Trade Review covers a number of timely topics. Dr. Andrea Viski, Schar School Adjunct Professor and editor for the Review, writes in here introduction “The role of the Strategic Trade Review is to empower readers from all stakeholder communities with the powerful tool of rigorous and consummate scholarship from some of the top experts in the world on this and other questions. From discovering the ways that North Korean nuclear researchers acquire sensitive technology through international collaborations to how companies implement R&D compliance, this 10th issue of STR holds a mirror to today’s most important trade and security concerns.”
“MCMi Program Update”
“This newly released annual report provides an update on the US Food and Drug Administration’s work to support medical countermeasure-related public health preparedness and response efforts:
FDA plays a critical role in protecting the United States from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and emerging infectious disease threats. FDA ensures that medical countermeasures (MCMs)—including drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests—to counter these threats are safe, effective, and secure. FDA works closely with interagency partners through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE, or Enterprise) to build and sustain the MCM programs necessary to effectively respond to public health emergencies. FDA also works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to facilitate the development and availability of MCMs to support the unique needs of American military personnel. The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013 (PAHPRA), requires FDA to issue an annual report detailing its medical countermeasure activities. This report responds to that requirement for the latest fiscal year available.”
Personal Protective Equipment and Personal Protective Technology Product Standardization for a Resilient Public Health Supply Chain
“The National Academies will convene a public workshop, March 1-2, to examine standards gaps related to personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal protective technology (PPT). The event will explore innovative approaches and technologies needed to update and streamline the U.S. standardization system for PPE and PPT in support of supply chain resiliency. Policymakers, manufacturers, users, and relevant technical contributors will discuss ways to improve the effectiveness, safety, supply stability, and accessibility of PPE and PPT in health care settings and increase usage by critical infrastructure workers and the general public.” Learn more and register here.
Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats
For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.
Call for Applications: Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons (2023 – 2024)
From the Council on Strategic Risks: “In a time of rising geopolitical tensions and the continued emergence of biological events, the devastation that biological threats can cause is clearer than ever. Whether biological threats arise naturally, by accident, or through a deliberate effort to weaponize infectious diseases, they pose grave risks to international security and stability, and significantly impact the welfare and health of people around the globe. The urgency for mitigating this area of catastrophic risks is further driven home by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and concerns that its leaders might consider using weapons of mass destruction in conflict, which includes biological weapons, and continued misinformation and disinformation related to biological weapons threats.”
“The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is continuing to develop and cultivate creative solutions to help address biological threats, including a particular focus on reducing risks of the deliberate weaponization of infectious diseases. As part of this work, CSR is announcing a call for applications for the 2023–2024 class of our Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons. Applications are due by 5pm Eastern Daylight Savings Time on March 24, 2023. Four to six Fellows will be selected.” Learn more and apply here.
IFBA Launches New Professional Certification in Cyberbiosecurity
From the International Federation of Biosafety Associations: “The IFBA is pleased to announce the launch of their new Professional Certification in Cyberbiosecurity which identifies individuals with demonstrated competencies in the mitigation of cybersecurity risks within biological laboratories. This includes Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) risks in order to protect sensitive biological research, data, databases, and laboratory facilities and equipment against illicit or unauthorized access, theft, tampering, or other forms of misuse.” Read more here.
Weekly Trivia Question
You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to firstname.lastname@example.org will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is: This viral disease is primarily spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and was first detected in humans through a serological survey conducted in Uganda in 1952. What is its name?
Shout out to Scott H. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “This disease, named for a Brazilian physician, is caused by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, and is commonly spread by kissing bugs. What is it?” is Chagas disease.