Pandora Report: 5.27.2022

Happy Friday! This week starts with a trip around the Korean Peninsula as we cover what some Biodefense Program students are doing in South Korea right now before discussing updates on COVID-19 in North Korea. Brief updates and sources for more information on monkeypox are also included, in addition to a number of new publications and upcoming events.

Biodefense Students Study Northeast Asian Security Issues in South Korea

Four students from George Mason’s Biodefense Program are studying international security issues in South Korea for two weeks with the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS). The program is headed up by the Schar School’s Professor Ellen Laipson, current Director of CSPS and President Emerita of the Stimson Center, and is sponsored by the UniKorea Foundation. Their time in Korea began at George Mason’s Korea campus, located on the Incheon Global Campus. They are currently in Seoul and will soon finish their trip in Busan. Among other things, they have completed a Korean War crisis simulation and attended the CSPS-Korea branch’s annual symposium, “Prospects for Peace on the Korean Peninsula in Northeast Asia’s Changing Security Landscape,” which has been featured in multiple Korean media outlets.

COVID-19 in North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK, North Korea) outbreak of “fevers” continues as cases surge towards 3 million and the official death count reaches 86. The country claims it has the situation under control and that it is currently seeing a downward trend in cases, though this is the subject of much skepticism. “In a few days after the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system was activated, the nation-wide morbidity and mortality rates have drastically decreased and the number of recovered persons increased, resulting in effectively curbing and controlling the spread of the pandemic disease and maintaining the clearly stable situation,” Korean Central News Agency said this week.

However, North Korea is apparently unable to maintain sufficient testing capacity, so their numbers actually reflect those confirmed to have a fever, rather than confirmed cases of COVID-19. The term “fevers” seems to have become both a euphemism for COVID-19 and an actual metric for determining who is sick in the absence of strong testing capacity. Furthermore, given the realities of the regime’s rule and party politics in the country, lower-level leaders are not incentivized to tell the truth about outbreaks in localities and provinces. Therefore, while state media is likely not telling the truth about the situation, the central government also likely does not have a great understanding of national case counts either.

North Korean poster praising the Party’s “quarantine battle” featured by Korean Central News Agency (Source: 조선중앙통신)

Furthermore, while it is doubtful that the country has been truthful in reporting cases over the last couple of years, this does pose an important question- Why did the DPRK announce it has an outbreak now? Kim Jong-un has even described this as the worst crisis since the country’s founding in the mid-20th century. For context, North Korea survived a horrific famine in the 1990s wherein 240,000 to 3.5 million died of starvation or hunger-related illnesses in a country of 22 million. The DPRK is currently struggling with food shortages driven by low crop yields and reduced trade with the PRC due to COVID-19 border restrictions. Kim has also formally acknowledged this crisis, but the admission that this outbreak is so dangerous is especially interesting. National lockdowns have also likely further exacerbated hunger issues in the chronically malnourished country, as North Koreans lose access to private markets where many acquire most of their food, instead of through the national distribution system. There are a myriad of answers swirling around right now about why Kim announced this now, ranging from the idea that he really did not know how bad it was (because, again, lower-level leaders are not likely to be entirely truthful in their reporting) to the potential for this announcement to give the regime more control during this crisis.

However, the rapid spread of fevers throughout the capital has not dampened the DPRK’s missile tests. It launched three ballistic missiles within hours of announcing there was an outbreak in Pyongyang. Furthermore, this week, as President Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan wrapped up, the North launched an ICBM and two other ballistic missiles. Multiple high-explosive tests have been conducted in the North in recent weeks, prompting officials to warn that nuclear and ICBM tests were likely scheduled to occur within the next several weeks. President Biden promised his counterparts that he would work to deter the North’s nuclear threat, which has been a cornerstone of newly-inaugurated South Korean President Yoon’s campaign. Biden and Yoon also publicly discussed resuming military exercises between the two countries, which were paused or scaled-down under the Trump and Moon administrations in an effort to increase engagement with the DPRK. While all of this is something the North would unsurprisingly conduct tests in response to, some did express doubt that this would happen with the formal announcement that there is a major COVID-19 outbreak in the capital. This week, the UN Security Council rejected a US-led resolution to sanction the DPRK in response to these launches, due to Russian and Chinese vetoes. The Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, gave a speech during the vote in which he argued that sanctioning the North would be inhumane given the current situation, even though countries like South Korea and the US have offered aid to the DPRK even while remaining firm on issues like the North’s nuclear program.

The North has also continued to reject other international COVID-19 aid, further signaling that this outbreak has not changed much in the DPRK’s foreign policy so far. There are no known COVID-19 vaccines or antivirals in the country either. With concerns about access to things like oxygen and other medical supplies in the country, this fact is especially concerning. State TV has advised citizens to do things like make salt gargles, drink herbal teas, take pain killers, and disinfect their homes with mugwort solutions, further indicating the regime is presently relying on these at-home “cures” even though it has been offered aid by several countries and the WHO. Kim Jong-un has personally toured several pharmacies, sporting two masks while doing so in a departure from the last two years. It has also been reported that North Koreans near the Chinese border have been observed not wearing masks, meaning masking may only be in effect in Pyongyang or there is a mask shortage. This all does not bode well as the country’s healthcare system has remained hardly functional since the 1990s and more than 42% of the population are considered malnourished.

Monkeypox Cases On the Rise

Monkeypox updates are coming in constantly so, in an effort to not provide outdated or incomplete information, this section will focus more on providing good options for more information. As of May 25, there were 219 confirmed cases globally, primarily in young men who have sex with men, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. These have been reported in 12 WHO member states where the disease is not endemic, a fact that the WHO says is abnormal, but containable.

The CDC’s Health Alert Network recently published this report on the disease in the US and other non-endemic countries that urges clinicians to be vigilant given the rise of cases not associated with travel to endemic countries. It provides good background and descriptions of clinical presentation, in addition to advice for health departments and the general public.

This situation has also required countries to assess the preparedness of their vaccine stockpiles. The US has two vaccines in its Strategic National Stockpile for smallpox that will also work against monkeypox, for example. As there is no specific vaccine for monkeypox, demand for smallpox vaccines has skyrocketed. Bavarian Nordic‘s smallpox vaccine has proven to be 85% effective against monkeypox and the company is seeing unprecedented demand for a product it normally produces for biodefense stockpiling purposes.

“Unrelenting Violence: Violence Against Health Care in Conflict”

The newest report from Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition was recently released, analyzing attacks on healthcare systems in conflict zones throughout 2021. With more than 200 WHO-confirmed attacks on health care in Ukraine, “…the world’s attention has understandably focused on Russia’s invasion and its apparent strategy of targeting hospitals and ambulances,”—but the crisis is global, the Coalition’s chair, Leonard Rubenstein, said in a Physicians for Human Rights news release. While the report does acknowledge there have been some improvements in accountability for these attacks, Rubenstein also stated, “Perhaps 2022 will be an inflection point, as images and reports of attacks on health care and their consequences in Ukraine continue to go viral, accompanied by frequent and loud demands for accountability – but it won’t be if the lassitude of the international community continues.”

Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel New Edition

West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) recently released a new edition of its Sentinel, “The Biological Threat- Part Two,” as a follow up to the previous part one. In it, Gary Ackerman, Zachary Kallenborn, and Philipp Bleek present a bioterrorism
classification schema to evaluate the pandemic’s impact on bioterrorism, concluding that “…when it comes to bioterrorism, the pandemic probably has not moved the needle much. Although COVID-19 might encourage apocalyptic cults, some radical environmentalists, some extreme right-wing groups, and some Islamist extremist groups toward biological weapons, most other terrorist groups are more likely to be discouraged. The pandemic has bolstered some terrorists’ bio-related capabilities but in at most modest ways. At the same time, lessons from the COVID-19 experience may both help reduce the consequences of a future attack and heighten perceptions of bioterrorism risk.” Drs. Audrey Kurth Cronin of American University and Jaime Yassif of NTI also provided articles for this edition.

“When All Research Is Dual Use”

Issues in Science and Technology recently published this article by Dr. Sam Weiss Evans. In it, Weiss discusses issues with how policymakers view science and scientists, writing “The problems with the myth of asocial science, and its accompanying pantheon of lone hero scientists, are widespread and well known—but not, it seems, to policymakers, who continually reinscribe it. The myth can be found throughout US research, innovation, and governance systems, all of which fail to incentivize scientists to engage with society—or, often, even with those from other fields of study who might bring a different perspective.” He argues that science should instead be understood as a social system wherein science and scientists are questioned on the security implications of their work. He also criticizes “research security” and “research integrity”, arguing that these are part of a “fortress America” understanding of the world and that “Guards, gates, and guns only help when it’s clear what the threats are and what is to be protected. In the world of emerging biotechnology, neither is clear.” He ultimately concludes that social science approaches to understanding these threats need to be at the heart of the National Security Commission for Emerging Biotechnology’s work, writing that it will “…not be easy, as it questions some of the underlying assumptions of science—and of national security—for the last century. But the world in which those foundations were laid down no longer exists.”

“Charting a New Course for Biosafety in a Changing World”

David Gillum, Rebecca Moritz, Dr. Yong-bee Lim (Biodefense Program alumni), and Dr. Kathleen Vogel also recently released a piece in Issues in Science and Technology. They explain that “… recent events—such as the discovery of smallpox vials outside of high containment labs, the transport of inactivated anthrax around the world, and safety concerns around gene drives and a future with do-it-yourself genome editing—highlight gaps in how biosafety governance currently operates.” They argue that now is the time to amend issues in biosafety governance, but also that current proposals to do so “…largely mirror historical precedents and are reactive, overly broad, and inconsistent.” Their work provides good background information on this debate and offers an intriguing perspective on how to best balance allowing science to advance while also being realistic about the risks certain work poses.

Summary Report- “The Ethics of Protecting ‘CRISPR’ Babies: An International Roundtable”

The University of Kent recently hosted a roundtable event focused on the ethical issues posed by “CRISPR babies,” which featured Biodefense Program faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben-Ouagrham Gormley. The event’s summary report was recently published and provides background on this issue, including the recommendations of Ruipeng Lei and Renzong Qiu in China to protect the world’s first three genome-edited children, in addition to panelist comments. Dr. Ben-Ouagrham Gormley was also recently named a runner-up winner of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ McElvany Award for her work, “From CRISPR babies to super soldiers: challenges and security threats posed by CRISPR.”

Launching the Competence Network CBWNet: Achievements of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Future Challenges

The CBWNet recently released this working paper discussing the CWC at 25 years and the recent launch of the CBWNet project itself. The project is “a new, joint endeavour aimed at strengthening the norms against chemical and biological weapons. The four-year project is carried out jointly by the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), the Chair for Public Law and International Law at the University of Gießen, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and the Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker-Centre for Science and Peace Research (ZNF) at the University of Hamburg.” This paper identifies key gaps in international norms against chemical weapons use and how these might be bridged.

Discussions with DTRA Podcast, “Episode 1: DTRA Cleans Up Vozrozhdeniya Island’s 12 Tons of Anthrax”

This episode covers the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program’s Biological Threat Reduction Program’s heavy involvement in Vozrezhdeniye Island, Uzbekistan, commonly referred to as Voz Island, where the CTR Program eliminated more than 12 tons of weaponized anthrax that was abandoned on site. It includes the personal stories and experiences of DTRA people who were on the ground as part of the clean-up crew.

Global Public Policy Institute Podcast- “Nowhere to Hide”

This new episode from GPPI, “Nowhere to Hide”, discusses use of chemical weapons in Syria using first-person perspectives to do so. GPPI writes:

The systematic use of chemical weapons in Syria is one of the most heinous crimes in modern history. These toxic attacks have claimed the lives of almost two thousand people and left thousands more profoundly scarred. Not only did the Syrian regime poison its own people – it also defied the norms that underpin our international community. Assad’s flagrant crimes in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere have raised weighty questions about the future of war. And they have left Syrians with a momentous mission for justice. Nowhere to Hide tells the stories of those who came closest to these events.

Investigating High-Consequence Biological Events of Unknown Origin

The Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative are offering an event exploring the possibility of establishing a new “Joint Assessment Mechanism” — a concept that NTI has been developing in consultation with international experts — to strengthen UN-system capabilities to investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin. The event will take place on Tuesday, 7 June 2022 from 13:00 to 14:30 CEST (Central European Summer Time) in person and online. The event will feature NTI’s Dr. Jaime Yassif and Angela Kane and UNIDIR’s James Revill. RSVP here.

Stakeholder Engagement Meeting on USG Policies for the Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern

NIH will hold a stakeholder engagement meeting on the U.S. Government policies for the oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). The meeting will be held in person at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ and it will be webcast. It is scheduled for June 29, 2022, tentatively 12:00 PM to 6:15 PM ET (9:00 AM to 3:15 PM MT). Additional information will be available soon. Please monitor this site for updates.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

Dr. Gregory Koblentz on The Danger of Disinformation

Dr. Koblentz recently gave this talk, “The Danger of Disinformation,” with the Nuclear Threat Initiative discussing Russia’s false claims about Ukrainian biological research facilities.

GMU’s Access to Excellence Podcast- “EP 39: Russia’s War in Ukraine is Tied to Corruption, Organized Crime”

Dr. Louise Shelley, a University Professor and director of Mason’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center explains to George Mason President Gregory Washington the connections between the war in Ukraine and Russian corruption and organized crime, and how criminals and terrorists take advantage in diverse ways of the globalized world in which we live. Shelley’s center exposes that criminality and recently helped take 55 million counterfeit and sub-standard medical masks out of circulation worldwide with the takedown of more than 50,000 online marketplaces and social media posts.

Pandora Report: 5.13.2022

Happy Top Gun Day to all those that feel the need for speed! Continuing the theme of “things you thought you left in the Cold War,” we’re covering news from Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow in this edition. This week we discuss the official emergence of COVID-19 in North Korea, China’s new 14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Bioeconomy, and a WHO European Region proposal to condemn Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and even shutter the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of NCDs in Moscow. The new Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group and updates on avian influenza in the United States are also discussed. We have included a number of great new publications, including a report from the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense discussing the resources land-grant universities can offer US biodefense and the WHO’s first global report on infection prevention and control. Upcoming events, including one offered by Issues in Science and Technology featuring Biodefense Graduate Program alumnus Dr. Yong-Bee Lim as a panelist, are included. Finally, check out the announcements section for a special One Health funding opportunity and more new works combatting Russian WMD disinformation.

“Maximum National Emergency” in the Impossible State- First COVID-19 Outbreak Announced in Pyongyang

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) announced via the Korean Central News Agency that it is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak this week with multiple people testing positive for the BA.2 subvariant in Pyongyang. At least 187,000 were quarantined due to a “fever” of unknown origin and Kim Jong-un declared a “maximum national emergency” in response. According to the New York Times, “North Korea said 350,000 people had been found to have a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday. It added that 162,200 people had completely recovered.” Six are reported dead (one specifically from Omicron) and Kim has ordered all cities and counties in the country of 25 million to lock down. This is the first admission to having any cases from the regime and, in typical fashion, Kim took the opportunity to admonish his health officials, claiming that the outbreak in the capital “shows there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.” As of late February this year, the DPRK had reported 54,187 COVID-19 tests to the WHO since the pandemic began, all of which it claimed were negative.

The announcement was made the same week the South inaugurated its new president, Yoon Suk-yeol on May 10. Yoon is a conservative who brings a harsher stance on the North than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, which many think will heighten tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons. While major political events in the South often bring provocations from the North, including nuclear tests, some wonder if this new revelation might temper this tendency. However, former UK Ambassador to the DPRK, John Everard, believes this is unlikely to stop the North’s weapons testing for now. However, it may impact Kim’s promise to rapidly expand his nuclear arsenal, according to some analysts, a promise which he made at last month’s military parade featuring new ICBMs.

Irrespective of what happens in terms of nuclear testing, the public health situation is critical in the DPRK. Like China, it has implemented a Zero COVID-19 policy, which includes lockdowns at the border and strict quarantines. However, it has not yet started a COVID-19 vaccination campaign, making it the only other country to have not done so apart form Eritrea. This is despite multiple offers and refused deliveries from COVAX, including an offer that would have covered 20% of the population. As of February this year, COVAX had just 1.29 million doses allocated to North Korea, a number many organizations are calling for increases in amid the outbreak. The country previously expressed concerns about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine COVAX had allocated for the country (citing concerns about rare blood clotting following vaccination), though it also rejected over 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac in September of last year, saying they should be sent to severely impacted countries. The DPRK also rejected multiple offers from South Korea and Russia to provide vaccines to the country in 2021. As a result, this is an unvaccinated population in a country plagued by malnutrition and other health crises facing a highly transmissible and contagious subvariant, all while lockdowns make accessing what healthcare is available difficult if not impossible.

Korea experts at CSIS think that the North is probably interested in receiving vaccines, though they specifically want mRNA ones. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is, like Johnson and Johnson’s offering, a viral vector vaccine. Sinovac’s CoronaVac is an inactivated vaccine found to be less effective than mRNA vaccines, like those offered by Pfizer and Moderna. Remember, the PRC has not produced nor authorized any mRNA vaccines, despite its initial claims that it had one domestic mRNA vaccine offering at its reach. The PRC does have some mRNA candidates in phase three clinical trials and review and approval processes, including the vaccine developed by Abogen Biosciences, Walvax Biotechnology, and the PLA Academy of Military Science that is currently in extensive trials in China, Mexico, and Indonesia. However, as China struggles with case counts in places like Shanghai, this is unlikely to be of much help to the DPRK any time soon.

The North has likely been concerned about the monitoring requirements that come with accepting COVAX shipments, which might be mitigated by reframing this as technical support while highlighting the differences between vaccines and other fungible forms of aid. De-linking COVID-19 aid from progress on other strategic goals is another potentially useful tool if the North remains committed to its current approach. Again, however, this is an incredibly serious situation, so the DPRK may be more open to less desirable terms than it normally would be.

Furthermore, the Zero COVID approach has contributed to secondary health and food crises as supplies of medication and access to care evaporate and the food shortage drags on. In fact, “The Great Year of Victory 2021”, the most recent version of the annual, near-two-hours-long documentary praising Kim and recapping the regime’s achievements for that year, even admitted there is a food crisis. According to the Washington Post, “The narrator described a meeting where Kim expressed his concern that “what is urgently needed in stabilizing the people’s livelihood is to relieve the tension created by the food supply,” and he called on emergency measures for the “food crisis,” noting that the country had dipped into its emergency grain supply. In June, Kim called the country’s food situation “tense.”” Border closures blocked shipments of grains, fertilizers, and farming equipment, adding to the pain of a population wherein the UN estimates at least 43% are food insecure. This was all even further exacerbated by severe flooding followed by 2020’s typhoons, contributing to continued low crop yields. Kim Jong-un even remarked at a 2021 Worker’s Party meeting that the “people’s food situation is now getting tense.” Finally, an October 2021 report from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service revealed that Kim ordered an all-out farming campaign, calling for all citizens to “devote every effort to farming, and to secure “every grain” of rice.”

China has indicated it is “ready to go all out” in its support for the DPRK during the outbreak. Zhao Lijian, Deputy Director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency this week, “China and the DPRK are friendly neighbors linked by mountains and rivers. The two sides enjoy the fine tradition of mutual assistance. Since the onset of COVID-19, the DPRK side has been firmly supporting China in the fight against the coronavirus. China very much appreciates that. We feel deeply for anti-COVID situation in the DPRK. As the DPRK’s comrade, neighbor and friend, China is ready to go all out to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the virus.”

However, this aid is likely to be slow moving, with the PRC and DPRK having re-suspended overland trade last month. The suspension was previously lifted in January 2022 after the border was closed in 2020 to prevent COVID-19 from spreading into the country. This lack of movement impacted what aid was sent, with a 2020 UNICEF aid bundle sent to North Korea in 2020 sitting idle at a quarantine facility in China until January of this year. Furthermore, trade between the countries dropped over 90% between March 2020 and March 2021, with the DPRK economy contracting 4.5% in 2020, the steepest decline for the country since it endured the massive North Korean Famine of the 1990s. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced too this week that the ROK is willing to provide medical assistance and other help North Korea during this crisis.

In February 2021 the CSIS Korea Chair’s podcast, The Impossible State, covered what was then known about lockdowns and the severity of COVID-19 in the North. This is a great source for context on this situation and, in it, Dr. Victor Cha (Senior Vice and Korea Chair at CSIS,  D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies at Georgetown University, and former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council), Dr. Kee Park (Lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School), and Dr. J. Stephen Morrison (Senior Vice President and Director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS) discussed issues like a lack of ventilators in the country and, perhaps most interestingly, greater government control of private markets.

These markets gained momentum during the days of the great famine in the 1990s when the regime’s public distribution system failed. According to some estimates pre-pandemic, up to 72% of North Koreans get all of their daily resources from these markets, not from the government. These are also avenues for media from the rest of the world to enter the country, however they also offer the regime and easy resource for hard currency. This was seen in 2009 when the regime redenominated the won and placed restrictions on how much of the old currency could be converted, helping reconsolidate its power from the growing markets. In an effort to recentralize and recoup some of its losses in 2021, the government “..reclaimed control over all foreign trade and domestic markets.” “During the 8th Party Congress, North Korea announced its new five-year economic plan (2021–25). It stresses centralised management in all sectors and advocates greater political control in day-to-day economic planning and management,” according to East Asia Forum. While this indicates the regime feels threatened by the pandemic, it also means that food insecure people’s access to resources was further limited, which will be even worse now with the entire country in lockdown.

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan Gets Boost to Its Bioeconomy Focus

In March 2021, the PRC’s National People’s Congress passed the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan, covering 2021-2025. China’s five-year plans are collections of social and economic development initiatives that the Party issues to help guide policy making. They help the Party outline what each facet of government should be working towards by doing everything from outlining what Chinese communism looks like in a given era to launching comprehensive reforms. Drafted in October 2020, the 14th Five-Year Plan was written amid economic shrinkage (the first in four decades) and worsening US-China relations during the COVID-19 pandemic. It sets forth a strategy of the “domestic and overseas markets reinforcing each other, with the domestic market as the mainstay,” focusing heavily on the economy, environment, energy, transportation, research and development, and urbanization.

China Daily reported this week that the National Development and Reform Commission released a new document outlining a plan to “spur the bioeconomy during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25), in a bid to promote high-quality development of the sector,” called “The 14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Bioeconomy.” This is similar in nature to the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Informatization released in December 2021, which seeks to further the country’s digitization during the period covered by the 14th-Five Year Plan. The 29-page bioeconomy plan, available here (no English translation was available at the time of writing) outlines steps “to promote innovative development of the bioeconomy, accelerate the development of healthcare, bio-agriculture, bioenergy, biological environmental protection and bioinformatics, improve the biosecurity risk control, prevention and governance system, and create a better environment for the innovative development of the bioeconomy.”

It begins by explaining broad objectives and indicating it was crafted “according to the 14th Five-Year Plan of National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China and the Outline of Vision 2035.” It then continues to define goals across 28 sub-topics, ranging from development areas to calls for improved epidemic management and biosecurity. The document outlines a number of basic principles including “Adhere to the innovation-driven”, “Adhere to win-win cooperation”, and “Adhere to risk control.”

The promise of win-win cooperation is a key way China promotes its aid and infrastructure deals with other countries, contrasting its supposedly mutually beneficial offerings with those of the United States. In a statement before the UN in 2015, Xi Jinping took this even further, saying “Major countries should follow the principles of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in handling their relations. Big countries should treat small countries as equals, and take a right approach to justice and interests by putting justice before interests.” This echoes many claims and promises the PRC makes to differentiate itself from the United States on the global stage. In reality, the PRC is not really interested in win-win situations just as it is only interested in its core principle of non-interference when it is convenient. To achieve this “win-win approach”, the plan calls for, “a higher level of openness to the outside world and greater reform initiatives to gather global bio-innovation resources.” It also calls for China to “Actively participate in global biosafety governance, promote bilateral and multilateral international cooperation in life sciences and biotechnology, and promote the rational flow of innovation factors to achieve mutual benefit and win-win bio-economic benefits.”

Zhou Jian, Deputy Director of the Consumer Goods Industry Department at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said, “The ministry will work with relevant departments to implement moves to modernize the biomedicine sector, including building a modern innovative ecosystem deeply integrating the industrial, innovation, value and supply chains, shoring up weak chains, promoting intelligent and green development of the pharmaceutical industry, driving innovative transformation of large enterprises and supporting the development of small and medium-sized enterprises that specialize in niche sectors.”

According to China Daily, “Under the plan, the bioeconomy-a model focusing on protecting and using biological resources and deeply integrating medicine, healthcare, agriculture, forestry, energy, environmental protection, materials and other sectors-will become a key driving force to boost high-quality development by 2025.

By 2025, the proportion of the bioeconomy’s added value in GDP will increase steadily, and China is set to witness a significant increase in the number of enterprises engaged in the bioeconomy with annual revenues of at least 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) each. By 2035, China aims to be at the forefront globally in terms of the comprehensive strength of its bioeconomy.”

This is of concern, particularly given the strategy’s interest in things like precision medicine (which uses genomic, physiological and other data to tailor treatments to individuals), as US officials continue to warn of China’s interest in Americans’ health data – including DNA information. In 2020, as US states struggled to build their testing capacity, Chinese biotech firm BGI Group (formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute) offered at least six states help with building and managing COVID-19 testing labs. This would have given the company access to Americans’ health data, former Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina said during a January 2021 CBS 60 Minutes report. BGI was also scrutinized for its connection to the PLA as it gave pregnant patients’ genomic data from NIFTY prenatal tests to the Chinese military to conduct research on population traits. The Pentagon warned service members in 2019 not to take at-home DNA test kits, stating they create security risks and could impact service members’ careers, following similar concerns. China’s interest in competing in biopharmaceuticals and medical device manufacturing further indicate the country is in it for personal gain, not improving and saving lives- a dangerous prospect in a world threatened by high chronic disease burdens and threats of emerging infectious diseases.

Europe Pressuring the WHO to Isolate Russia

Many members of WHO’s European region are pushing the organization to remove experts at its office in Moscow. The 53-member region includes Ukraine, Russia and the entirety of the EU. It will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday to consider passing a resolution condemning Russia’s attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine, which could set into motion the removal of WHO experts in Moscow. Politico explains, “If agreed, the resolution would force the WHO’s hand on taking a more political stance on the war. The health organization has in the past been criticized for taking overtly apolitical positions, including for its caution at publicly calling out China in the early days of the pandemic.” The WHO did announce, however, this week that it has begun gathering evidence for a potential war crimes investigation into the more than 200 attacks it has documented by Russia on Ukrainian healthcare facilities on its Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care platform.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visiting Ukraine last week

The draft resolution is sharply worded and demands that the Russian Federation “ensure respect for international humanitarian law, including protection of all medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their means of transport and equipment, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities.” It also asks WHO Regional Director for Europe Hang Kluge “to safeguard the technical cooperation and assistance provided by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, including the possible relocation of the aforementioned office to an area outside of the Russian Federation.” It also asks Kluge to “consider temporarily suspending all regional meetings in the Russian Federation.” The suspension in the region would be in place until there is a peaceful resolution in Ukraine, according to Politico

However, some argue it will do very little in practice. Lawrence Gostin at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law called it a “weak rebuke that won’t bother Putin,” continuing on to say that the WHO could remove Russia’s voting rights at the World Health Assembly and that the assembly should pass a resolution condemning attacks on healthcare facilities. He also argued that the WHO should take make multiple steps regarding this at the World Health Assembly, including 1) suspending Russia’s WHA voting privileges, 2) passing resolutions condemning Russian attacks on healthcare and blocking humanitarian aid, 3) inviting Ukrainian doctors and human rights NGOs to speak at WHO, and 4) reforming surveillance system for attacks targeting healthcare facilities.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Health has been even less subtle about its view of the matter, tweeting “Due to #Russianinvasion, Ukraine insists on the closure of WHO’s European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, located in Moscow. We are talking about moving the office outside of russia. Ukraine has already submitted a request to the @WHO_Europe.”

Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group

The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group recently released this statement outlining directions for strengthening the G7’s desires to improve non-proliferation, regulate conventional weapons and ammunition, and secure the sustainable use of outer space. It begins by reiterating “the G7´s profound condemnation of Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of choice against Ukraine, enabled by the Belarusian government.” It covers topics like strengthening the NPT ahead of the 10th Review Conference in August 2022, support for the restoration and full implementation of the JCPOA, upholding the global norm against the development and use of biological weapons, honoring the 20th anniversary of the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, defending the norm against the use of chemical weapons and countering impunity, countering the proliferation of missiles and other critical technology, saving lives by preventing illicit transfers and destabilizing accumulation of conventional weapons and ammunition, and addressing state threats to the secure, safe, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space.

Bird Flu Updates- US States Confirm Cases in Wild Mammals

Building on last week’s update on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) cases in the US, H5N1 HPAI is now impacting more than 2/3 of US states, and multiple states in the Midwest have reported cases in fox kits. 37.55 million poultry in the US have died as a result of the virus’s spread. In Michigan, three fox kits have died in Macomb, St. Clair, and Lapeer counties, with the Michigan State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab finding them “non-negative” for HPAI. Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported on Wednesday that a wild fox had tested positive. Two kits were also confirmed to have died from H5N1 in Ontario, Canada earlier this month, with one displaying “severe neurologic signs before dying at a rehabilitation center, according to the DNR.” An estimated 1.7 million farmed birds in Canada have been killed by H5N1 this year. A turkey vulture in Dundas was recently found to be infected, indicating it is spreading even further in Canadian wild bird populations. Wild red foxes in the Netherlands tested positive in 2021 during outbreaks of avian influenza in multiple European countries as well. These cases in the US and Canada represent the first cases reported in wild mammals in North America.

“Testing in Minnesota has confirmed HPAI in nearly 200 wild birds, including 19 species of birds, primarily waterfowl and raptors,” said Michelle Carstensen, the Minnesota DNR’s wildlife health program supervisor. Washington state confirmed Thursday that it has seen six outbreaks in just one week, adding two to that count yesterday. “With so many suspicious cases in domestic flocks and wild birds pending investigation, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to avoid exposing your flock to wild waterfowl, shorebirds, and other domestic flocks,” Washington state veterinarian Dr. Amber Itle said. The CDC still says the risk of H5N1 to humans remains low, but it advises the public to avoid handling sick or dead birds, cautioning them to use a plastic bag or shovel to do so if necessary.

In related news, China recently detected the first human case of H3N8 in a young boy who had close contact with chickens and crows raised at his home. While a single case is not particularly concerning, increases in transmission in birds increases the opportunities for these viruses to mutate, potentially gaining the ability to spread easily from person-to-person eventually. The WHO said of the case, “Currently, limited available epidemiologic and virologic information suggests that this avian influenza A(H3N8) virus has not acquired the ability of sustained transmission among humans. Therefore, the risk at the national, regional and international level of disease spread is assessed as low.”

“Boots on the Ground: Land-Grant Universities in the Fight Against Threats to Food and Agriculture”

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense recently released this report discussing how universities receiving benefits through Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994 and Equity in Education Land-Grant Status Act funds offer unique resources to identifying and rectifying critical biodefense gaps. The Commission writes:

The food- and agro-biodefense challenge is different from, but as daunting as, biodefense of human public health due to the diversity of targets (e.g., livestock, crops, soil); spectrum of potential pathogens and pests; and different geographies, ecosystems, and infrastructures at risk. Land-grant universities are uniquely positioned to help defend the United States against biological threats to food, livestock, crops, wildlife, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, textiles, the environment, the bioeconomy, and the food and agro-economy, valued at more than $1 trillion annually. In serving the states, localities, tribes, and territories in which they reside, the land-grant universities have their boots on the ground in the fight against threats to food and agriculture.

The Commission makes a number of recommendations across the subjects of coordination, early warning, research and development, and preparedness, response, and mitigation. These include “Incorporate all land-grant universities in national food and
agro-biodefense activities,” “Expand the role of land-grant universities in international
surveillance and interdiction for food and agriculture defense,” “Establish land-grant university biodefense research coalitions,” and “Establish a cooperative extension preparedness and response framework that extends the capabilities of the Extension
Disaster Education Network,” among others.

Today, the US has 112 Land-Grant Colleges and Universities, ranging from Ivy League Cornell to major state agriculture universities like Kansas State and Texas A&M, both of which have strong backgrounds in biodefense work. “The original mission of these institutions, as set forth in the first Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education,” according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The Association also explains, “A key component of the land-grant system is the agricultural experiment station program created by the Hatch Act of 1887. The Hatch Act authorized direct payment of federal grant funds to each state to establish an agricultural experiment station in connection with the land-grant institution there. The amount of this appropriation varies from year to year and is determined for each state through a formula based on the number of small farmers there. A major portion of the federal funds must be matched by the state.”

Map depicting land-grant universities across the nation. Source: USDA

“Want to Prevent Pandemics? Stop Spillovers”

Vora et al. discuss how just $20 billion per year in investments could greatly reduce the likelihood of future spillovers in their recent Nature Comment. They write that, “Spillover events, in which a pathogen that originates in animals jumps into people, have probably triggered every viral pandemic that’s occurred since the start of the twentieth century.” They continue, explaining “What’s more, an August 2021 analysis of disease outbreaks over the past four centuries indicates that the yearly probability of pandemics could increase several-fold in the coming decades, largely because of human-induced environmental changes.” They identify four specific actions based on “decades of research from epidemiology, ecology and genetics,” including protecting tropical and subtropical forests, banning or strictly regulating (both domestically and internationally) “commercial markets and trade of live wild animals that pose a public-health risk,” improving biosecurity where dealing with farmed animals is concerned, and improving people’s health and economic security, particularly in “hotspots for the emergence of infectious diseases.” They go on to discuss other measures, like incorporating these actions into the WHA pandemic agreement currently under negotiation and improvements in preventative health care.

“Zero Draft Report of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies to the Seventy-Fifth World Health Assembly”

Speaking of the WHA, a working group tasked with finding ways to strengthen WHO’s preparedness and response to health emergencies just released this draft report for the Assembly. In their 56-page report, they provide insight and recommendations for boosting the implementation and compliance of parties to the International Health Regulations and a potential timeline for amending them. According to Devex, “To strengthen equity, the report says member states should establish and scale up national and regional manufacturing capacities for the development and delivery of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and other essential supplies during emergencies. It also asks them “to consider processes for transfer of technology and know-how, including to and among larger manufacturing hubs in each region.””

Much of the report’s proposals are not new, owing to the fact that the working group was tasked with reviewing existing recommendations for pandemic preparedness. Other recommendations, as Devex explains, include “…for the WHO Secretariat to consider a different acronym when referring to so-called public health emergencies of international concern, as the abbreviation “PHEIC” is sometimes pronounced like the word “fake” in English. The report also suggests that WHO publish information on disease outbreaks with pandemic potential “on an immediate basis” and that member states discuss the feasibility of developing an intermediate and/or regional alert systems for health emergencies.” It also recommends the 75th WHA adopts any amendments to the IHR that are ready, while also suggesting the director-general convenes a review committee to “make technical recommendations for proposed amendments submitted to the WHO Secretariat by June 30 of this year.” The group also recommends that the IHR review committee provides a report to the director-general by October. Meanwhile, a member state-led process should finalize their proposed amendments and then submit them to the director-general by January of 2023. If necessary, the report indicates this process can continue until the 76th World Health Assembly, expected to take place in May 2023.

The United States has already submitted proposals for IHR amendments for consideration by the 75th WHA. They are primarily focused on requiring states parties to provide early notification to WHO regarding any events that might become PHEICs. The WHO would also have a 24-hour window to work with states parties to verify reports and determine a disease’s potential to spread abroad. Another US-proposed amendment includes a provision on deliberations of the IHR emergency committee, specifying that if the group “is not unanimous in its findings, any member shall be entitled to express his or her dissenting professional views in an individual or group report, which shall state the reasons why a divergent opinion is held and shall form part of the Emergency Committee’s report.” The US has also proposed creation of a compliance committee for implementation of the IHR.

“The Department of Defense Contributions to Pandemic Response”

CSIS Global Health Policy Center’s Drs. Thomas Cullison and J. Stephen Morrison recently authored this report discussing the Department of Defense’s (DOD) future in the US government’s work on international health security. They write, “A process of strategic planning that encompasses a spectrum of valuable DOD contributions to contain the global Covid-19 pandemic should begin right away. DOD has broad capabilities that have consistently proven their high value in addressing the current Covid-19 pandemic and other historical disease outbreaks, in support of the U.S. civilian-led response. The knowledge and experience gained in crisis response at home and overseas contribute to military readiness and improved coordination of all actors involved in preventing, detecting, and responding to infectious disease events.”

They also provide four recommendations to strengthen DOD’s contributions overseas that advance US global health security interests:

  • Identify a lead federal agency for U.S. international Covid-19 response and future health security crises. DOD should have permanent, sustained involvement in integrating and planning from the beginning.  
  • More closely coordinate and synchronize DOD capabilities dealing with biological threats within DOD and with external partners. 
  • Align funding authorities with desired outcomes. 
  • Maintain military, medical, and scientific expertise. 

“Towards a Post-Pandemic World: Lessons from COVID-19 for Now and the Future”

The National Academies recently published this proceedings of a workshop summarizing discussions and findings from the Forum on Microbial Threats’ two virtual 2021 workshops. The first workshop focused on what it means to frame the response to COVID-19 through a “syndemic” approach, and what the implications would be for global recovery. The second workshop focused more broadly on key lessons and emerging data from ongoing pandemic response efforts that can be incorporated into current health systems to improve resilience and preparedness for future outbreaks.

This workshop explored the long-term effects of COVID-19 on health equity, including considerations for mental health and social determinants of health. It also addressed uncertainties during a pandemic, such as trust, communication, and engagement and explored approaches to systematize recovery efforts to improve the ongoing responses and prepare for the next pandemic. Experts discussed possibilities for a post-pandemic world and a response strategy for stakeholders that ensures sustained community partnerships and prioritization of health equity. This Proceedings of a Workshop summarizes the presentations and discussions from the second workshop.

“The Coronavirus Vaccine Manufacturing Failures of Emergent Biosolutions”

This week, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. James E. Clyburn, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, released a staff report on their joint investigation into coronavirus vaccine manufacturing failures of Emergent BioSolutions, Inc. (Emergent). These failures occurred under a contract awarded by the Trump administration despite warnings about the company’s history of serious deficiencies.

According to the Committee on Oversight and Reform, “New evidence shows that nearly 400 million doses of coronavirus vaccines—significantly more than previously known—were destroyed because of Emergent’s failure to meet or maintain quality standards at its Bayview manufacturing facility. Internal communications reveal efforts by Emergent executives to hide evidence of contamination in an attempt to evade oversight from government regulators.” The report also found that Emergent executives promoted their manufacturing capability despite being warned for years by their then Executive Vice President of Manufacturing and Technical Operations that the company’s quality systems were deficient. Furthermore “FDA, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca identified multiple deficiencies at Bayview, which Emergent failed to remediate despite urgent warnings.” The report also determined that inexperienced staff and high rates of staff turnover at Emergent contributed to the vaccine contamination. HHS, under the Biden administration, terminated its contract with Emergent because the company failed to follow federal manufacturing standards. The report notes, “According to HHS, Emergent received $330 million in taxpayer dollars before the Biden Administration terminated the company’s contract in November 2021.  This action saved taxpayers $320 million that remained on the contract and came after the Committees launched an investigation and released preliminary findings about Emergent’s troubling conduct.”

“Global Report on Infection Prevention and Control”

The WHO has launched the first ever global report on infection prevention and control (IPC), revealing that “good IPC programmes can reduce health care infections by 70%.” The WHO explains, “Today, out of every 100 patients in acute-care hospitals, seven patients in high-income countries and 15 patients in low- and middle-income countries will acquire at least one health care-associated infection (HAI) during their hospital stay. On average, 1 in every 10 affected patients will die from their HAI.” This report finds that high-income countries are more likely to be further progressing in improving their IPC, and “are eight times more likely to have a more advanced IPC implementation status than low-income countries.” The report also notes that “…little improvement was seen between 2018 and 2021 in the implementation of IPC national programmes in low-income countries, despite increased attention being paid generally to IPC due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” WHO calls on all countries to increase their IPC investments to help improve quality of care and patient and worker safety.

“Archival Influenza Virus Genomes from Europe Reveal Genomic Variability During the 1918 Pandemic”

In the decades since the 1918 flu pandemic, improvements in technology have allowed researchers to learn more about the H1N1 virus that killed an estimated 50 million globally. However, questions have still remained regarding how and why the virus changed as time progressed, especially since its first wave was relatively tame compared to later waves. However, Patrono et al. recently published their research helping answer some of these questions. Dan Robitzski with The Scientist explains, the “researchers managed to extract viral genomes from tissue samples of people who caught the 1918 pandemic flu in different years to show how the virus mutated over time to adapt to the human immune system. They conclude that the virus may have evolved into the pathogen that circulated as a seasonal flu after the pandemic ended.”

Patrono et al. write in Nature Communications,

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the deadliest respiratory pandemic of the 20th century and determined the genomic make-up of subsequent human influenza A viruses (IAV). Here, we analyze both the first 1918 IAV genomes from Europe and the first from samples prior to the autumn peak. 1918 IAV genomic diversity is consistent with a combination of local transmission and long-distance dispersal events. Comparison of genomes before and during the pandemic peak shows variation at two sites in the nucleoprotein gene associated with resistance to host antiviral response, pointing at a possible adaptation of 1918 IAV to humans. Finally, local molecular clock modeling suggests a pure pandemic descent of seasonal H1N1 IAV as an alternative to the hypothesis of origination through an intrasubtype reassortment.

Influenza Milestones, Source: CDC

New York Times- The Daily: “One Million”

Today’s episode of The Daily podcast discusses the impending one millionth confirmed COVID-19 death in the United States, providing stories of some of the lives lost and the impact this has had on the living. “One million empty chairs around the dinner table. Each an irreplaceable loss,” President Biden said in a statement Thursday. “Each leaving behind a family, a community, and a nation forever changed because of this pandemic.” The podcast producers write, “We asked listeners to share memories about loved ones they have lost — and about what it’s like to grieve when it seems like the rest of the world is trying to move on. “Time keeps moving forward, and the world desperately wants to move past this pandemic,” one told us. “But my mother — she’s still gone.”” One million people is a number difficult to comprehend, but humanizing this massive number can help one process the gravity of the loss the country has suffered during this pandemic.

What Is Biosecurity for the Twenty-First Century?

After September 11 and the anthrax attacks in 2001, the United States adopted a top-down governance structure for bioterrorism that famously employed “guns, gates, and guards” to prevent attacks, while keeping track of suspicious “insiders” who might cause harm. But today, after the emergence of the novel coronavirus and its variants, society’s idea of what constitutes biological security and safety is changing. Looking toward a future in which gene editing can be done by do-it-yourselfers, biological engineering is common, and environmental changes shape new biorealities, the old top-down model of biosecurity will not be up to the task.

On May 23 at 3:00 PM ET, join Melissa Haendel (University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus), David Gillum (Arizona State University), Sam Weiss Evans (Harvard Kennedy School), and Yong-Bee Lim (Council on Strategic Risks) for a discussion moderated by Bryan Walsh (Vox Future Perfect) on how to reimagine biosecurity and biosafety—and even the relationship between biological research and society—for a new era. Register for the event here.

The Danger of Disinformation: Understanding Russia’s Propaganda Campaign Against Ukrainian Biological Facilities

Join NTI for a conversation with Dr. Gregory Koblentz, one of the world’s foremost biodefense scholars working at the nexus of health, science, and security, to discuss the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign against biological research facilities in Ukraine.

As part of an effort to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought to sow doubt and confusion around the purpose of public health and research labs in the country, spreading disinformation that these facilities are conducting covert, offensive bioweapon development operations. This tactic is a longstanding favorite of the Russian government, going back decades. Koblentz will explore the true aims of Russia’s disinformation campaign in Ukraine and what the international community should do to counter it. This seminar will be held on May 17 at 11 am EST. Register here.

Lessons from COVID-19 for the Public Health Emergency Enterprise: What Happened to the Plans? – A Workshop

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies is hosting a workshop exploring the nation’s Public Health Emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise, through the lens of COVID-19 in the US. The workshop will be hosted on May 17 and 18, and will explore key components, success stories, and failure points throughout the entire PHE preparedness and response enterprise. Participants will also identify opportunities for more effective catastrophic disaster, pandemic, and other large scale PHEs planning at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels. Speakers include Dr. Deborah Birx (former Coronavirus Response Coordinator at the Office of the Vice President) and Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security). Register here.

Dr. Gregory D. Bossart Memorial One Health Scholarship Call for Applicants

A $5,000 USD Dr. Greg Bossart Memorial Scholarship is available to a graduate student in wildlife biology, epidemiology, veterinary, medical, public health, basic or social sciences or other post-graduate program focusing on the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment using a One Health framework. The application deadline is July 1, 20022, at 11:59 pm EDT. Learn more about Dr. Bossart and the scholarship here.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

“Russia Targets Azerbaijan, Others With Fake Bioweapons Claims”

Voice of America’s Polygraph.info fact-checking site published this fact-check discussing Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev’s April 27 claim that, “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its satellites deployed a network of bio-laboratories in the space of the former Soviet republics – in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, where, under the guise of scientific research, they conduct military-biological activities.” Following Russia’s claim that it “could face biological threats from lab leaks in countries on its southern borders,” Azerbaijan’s State Security Service rejected the claims such labs have never operated in the country on May 7.

“Americans Love Conspiracy Theories, and That’s Dangerous for Everyone”

Matthew A. Baum and Katherine Ognyanova with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists discuss some of their findings from the COVID States Project in this piece. They explain their recent national survey asking respondents to assess the accuracy of eight popular false claims, four of which were about the COVID-19 vaccine. The other four pertained to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They also asked respondents about their attitudes and behaviors regarding both crises. They write, “The results contain both good and bad news. The good news is that in both cases, most Americans did not believe false claims about either crisis…The bad news is that relatively large percentages of respondents were unsure about the accuracy of the false claims.”

Something a Little Less Serious If You Made It This Far… “Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab Wins NPDN’s Rotten Tuber Award for ‘Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!’”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced Wednesday that the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab at Utah State University was awarded first place in the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN)’s Rotten Tuber Awards for its submission – “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” The Rotten Tuber Awards recognize unique samples that leave plant diagnosticians asking themselves, “What was this person thinking when they sent this sample?” From USDA NIFA:

“Enjoy “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” submitted by Zach Schumm, arthropod diagnostician and urban IPM associate, and Claudia Nischwitz, plant pathologist specialist:

“In mid-August 2021, the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab received a frantic call from an individual at a local Department of Health regarding a substance that was found on school buses that were about to be sent out to pick up children. They weren’t sure what the substance was and due to safety concerns, they delayed the use of the buses. Thinking the substance could be from a plant or plant derived, they contacted us in the diagnostic lab to see if we could offer any immediate advice. But they made it abundantly clear that they had no idea what the substance could have been. And tensions were clearly high! 

“When we were contacted by the individual, Zach Schumm had them send photographs of the substance and told them we would call back immediately once we got a look. Zach identified the substance immediately as bee excrement and nothing of concern. Within a few minutes, we called the individual back and she immediately put me on speakerphone. 

“Schumm vividly remembers telling them I knew what the substance was, and they replied “Oh my god! Okay wait! I am putting you on speaker phone with others from the department of health, the local sheriff’s department and the hazmat team. We are all stationed on-site under a tent!” This was no ordinary response; it was being treated as a potential threat and public health crisis. So there Zach is, one minute just eating a bland lunch and thinking his job is to identify insects, and the next minute he’s talking to high-level officials with much more authority than himself about the simple fact that bees decided to poop on their school buses.

“To help confirm the substance identification, Zach asked them if there were any agricultural fields nearby that would result in a high abundance of bees. Sure enough, the place where the buses were parked was adjacent to agricultural fields. 

“When Zach applied to his position — arthropod diagnostician — he wasn’t aware that he was going to have to save the day by saying the word “poop” to a hazmat team and the Department of Health. We are eternally grateful about the quick response by Utah officials to keep Utah’s children safe when there was a concern, but you can’t help but laugh at the situation.”

The culprit, pictured moments after terrorizing school buses in Utah. Source: KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Pandora Report 6.21.15

Changing things up this week, our lead story is a nuclear photo essay. We’ve also got Russian nuclear posturing and a bunch of other stories you may have missed.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there and enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Next Exit, Armageddon: Photos of America’s Nuclear Weapons Legacy

I love a good photo essay, especially those focused on abandoned places—so this is the perfect* combination of that and nuclear history. Many times on the blog I’ve made somewhat flippant comments about visiting nuclear sites on summer vacation. However, evidently there is great public interest in this. As such, the National Park Service and the Department of Energy will establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that will include sites as Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford.

VICE News—“Elsewhere in the US, the ruins of the Manhattan Project and the arms race that followed remain overlooked. In North Dakota, a pyramid-like anti-missile radar that was built to detect an incoming nuclear attack from the Soviet Union pokes through the prairie grass behind an open fence. In Arizona, a satellite calibration target that was used during the Cold War to help American satellites focus their lenses before spying on the Soviet Union sits covered in weeds near a Motel 6 parking lot. And in a suburban Chicago park, where visitors jog and bird watch, nuclear waste from the world’s first reactor — developed by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi for the Manhattan Project in 1942 — sits buried beneath a sign that reads ‘Caution — Do Not Dig.’”

*Check out the photos. They’re truly extraordinary.

Putin: Russia to Boost Nuclear Arsenal with 40 Missiles

Everything old is new again, it seems. This week Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will put more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles into service in 2015. It is said that the new missiles are part of a military modernization program. However, the announcement comes on the heels of a US proposal to increase its own military presence in NATO states in Eastern Europe.

BBC—“Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the statement from Mr. Putin was “confirming the pattern and behaviour of Russia over a period of time; we have seen Russia is investing more in defence in general and in its nuclear capability in particular”.

He said: “This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified, it’s destabilising and it’s dangerous.” He added that “what Nato now does in the eastern part of the alliance is something that is proportionate, that is defensive and that is fully in line with our international commitments.’”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Federal Government of the United States

Pandora Report 5.24.15

Two quick updates before we get into the weekly wrap-up.

First, the Early Registration Deadline for the Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and International Security professional education course at the GMU Arlington Campus has been extended to June 15. For more information and registration, please click here.

Second, we here at Pandora Report wanted to let you know about a new website designed to provide resources for biosecurity professionals and practitioners and key stakeholders. The International Biosecurity Prevention Forum (IBPF) brings together the world’s leading experts from the health and security communities to share expertise on key biosecurity and bioterrorism prevention issues. Registering to join IBPF is free and easy. Go to http://www.ibpforum.organd click the “Request Membership” button to request an IBPF member account. Members get access to a discussion section and projects, resources, and best practices submitted by other members. Contact the IBPF support team at IBPForum@ic.fbi.gov if you have any questions or problems.

Now, onto the news. This weekend we have stories about British nuclear submarines, anti-vaccine legislation in California, the development of bird flu vaccines, and other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend!!

Britain Investigates Sailor’s Disaster Warning Over Nuclear Subs

Able Seaman William McNeilly—a weapons engineer who served aboard HMS Vanguard, one of the four British submarines carrying Trident missiles—wrote a “lengthy dossier” released on the internet which says that the “Trident nuclear defense system was vulnerable both to enemies and to potentially devastating accidents because of safety failures.” McNeilly has since gone AWOL and both police and naval officials are trying to locate him.

The Japan Times—“The Royal Navy said it totally disagreed with McNeilly’s “subjective and unsubstantiated personal views,” describing him as a “very junior sailor.” But it added it was investigating both his claims and the “unauthorized release” of his dossier. “The naval service operates its submarine fleet under the most stringent safety regime and submarines do not go to sea unless they are completely safe to do so,” a spokeswoman said.”

A Blow to Anti-Vaxxers: California Approves Forced Vaccination Bill

By now, we all know that the measles outbreak that started last winter at Disneyland was a result of unvaccinated individuals. In California, the State Senate has passed a bill which limits parent’s use of the “personal belief exemption” in order to get out of getting their children vaccinated. Under the bill, parents who don’t get their children vaccinated would not be able to send their kids to state-licensed schools, nurseries, or day care centers.

State Column—“Only children who have a medical reason for why they can’t be vaccinated would still be allowed to attend schools without receiving their vaccinations under Senate Bill 277, which was sponsored by a California Sen. Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacremento), a pediatrician, and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), a former school board member and the son of a survivor of polio, according to a Forbes report.”

Vaccines Developed for H5N1, H7N9 Avian Flu

Findings appearing in the Journal of Virology indicate that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases have developed a vaccine for both H5N1 and H7N9—two strains of avian influenza which can be transmitted from poultry to humans. The vaccine was developed by cloning the Newcastle disease virus and transplanting a small section of the H5N1 virus into it; the same method was used for the H7N9 vaccine.

Toronto Sun—“‘We believe this Newcastle disease virus concept works very well for poultry because you kill two birds with one stone, metaphorically speaking,” Richt said. “You use only one vector to vaccinate and protect against a selected virus strain of avian influenza.’”

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Image Credit: UK Ministry of Defence

Pandora Report 12.13.14

It’s the end of the semester, and I don’t know about all you out there, but I plan to watch a lot of TV during the next five weeks. But, as we know, the news never stops, so this week we’ve got Time’s Person of the Year, ISIS and their potential dirty bomb, the crisis of growing antibiotic resistance and of course, an Ebola update.

Have a great week!

‘Time’ names ‘Ebola Fighters’ as Person of the Year

Normally a story like this would go in the Ebola roundup, but this story is big. Big big.

Every year, Time selects a “man, woman, couple or concept that the magazine’s editors feel had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months.” With runners up like the Ferguson, MO protestors and Vladimir Putin, this issue features people on the front lines of the outbreak in West Africa including CDC Director Tom Frieden, ambulance supervisor Foday Gallah, the first American doctor to be evacuated for treatment in the U.S. Kent Brantly, and nurse Kaci Hickox.

USA Today—“‘Ebola is a war, and a warning,” Time editor Nancy Gibbs writes in announcing the magazine’s choice for most influential newsmaker of 2014. “The global health system is nowhere close to strong enough to keep us safe from infectious disease, and ‘us’ means everyone, not just those in faraway places where this is one threat among many that claim lives every day. The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight.’”

ISIS Has the Materials to Build a Dirty Bomb, but It’s Nothing to Worry About

This week, experts said that IS have acquired the materials necessary to make a dirty bomb, but that the weapon is more effective as a means of causing fear than causing damage. According to a twitter account belonging to a British jihadist, the materials were acquired from Mosul University, after IS seized control of the city. However, Dina Esfandiary and Matthew Cottee, research associates at the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies point out that even if IS has the materials, they likely lack the knowhow to make the bomb.

Newsweek—“‘The materials they have are not radioactive enough to cause a great deal of damage or function as a working device,” says Esfandiary. “Where the weapon is effective is to cause fear.’”

New Antibiotic Resistance Report is the Stuff of Nightmares

A report published by researchers from RAND Europe and KPMG projects that growing antibiotic resistance could lead to 10 million people dying each year by 2050. The report covers not only the mortality statistics but the projected economic effects of growing drug resistance—$100 trillion USD worldwide and a reduction of 2%-3.5% GDP.

Forbes—“Currently, deaths due to antibiotic resistance are estimated at 700,000/yr, less than car accident fatalities (1.2 million), diabetes (1.5 million), [and] cancer (8.2 million). [This] “translates to 1,917 people killed every day, or 80 every hour. Ten million extra deaths per year would mean 23,397 deaths per day, or 1,141 deaths per hour.’”

This Week in Ebola

Despite nearly 7,000 deaths in this Ebola outbreak, stories are, annoyingly, becoming harder to find. As this happens, there is worry that as the disease becomes more invisible that complacency will set in. Even in Liberia, where there are still approximately a dozen new cases per day, officials worry that Liberians aren’t worried enough and Dr. Frieden urges the nation to remain alert. A new outbreak in Sierra Leone’s Kono District has resulted in a two week Ebola ‘lockdown’ and as exponential growth has slowed, it becomes even more important to have accurate data to ensure tracking of the disease.

Stateside, Ebola Czar Ron Klain will return to his private sector job on March 1. Meanwhile, a clinical trial of a potential Ebola vaccine was halted after patients complained of joint pains in their hands and feet, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has offered liability protection to drug makers who are developing Ebola vaccines. Lastly, an ER doctor at Texan Health Presbyterian Hospital admitted to missing key symptoms when first treating Thomas Eric Duncan and not considering Duncan’s travel history.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Time.com

Pandora Report 10.11.14

With so many stories being dedicated to Ebola, I was absolutely delighted to see coverage of influenza this week. We’ve also got stories about the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bugs in nursing homes, George Washington as the first father of vaccination, and of course, an Ebola update.

There will be no news round up next week, so I will see you all back here on October 25. Enjoy your weeks and don’t forget your flu shot!

Ebola’s Bad, but Flu’s Worse

With the coverage of the Ebola outbreak in media (and even on this blog) it may have inadvertently caused unreasonable panic in the American populace. The fact of the matter is one person in the U.S. has died from Ebola. Every year, according to the CDC, more than “226,000 Americans are hospitalized with flu and approximately 36,000 die from flu-related complications.” News outlets this week quietly reported on flu vs. Ebola and offered points of clarification about both diseases as well as tips for staying well. These include getting your flu vaccination, washing hands frequently especially after using the restroom and before eating or preparing food, and avoiding touching eyes, nose, or mouth to limit spread of germs.

Times Union—“‘The reality is there are vaccinations and treatment options available for the flu that are not available for Ebola. The reason for concern is there is no magic bullet to stop Ebola,’ said [Dr.Edward] Waltz [director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at the University at Albany]. ‘I think the most important message to get is, take action on the things that you can control. We have so many things that affect our health that we can’t control, get yourself a vaccination if it is available.’”

Medical Superbugs: Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria Carried by More than a Third of Nursing Home Residents

A study out of Melbourne, Australia, reported that more than 1/3 of nursing home residents tested were carriers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And this problem isn’t just plaguing other countries. In fact, a report from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found rising rates of pneumonia, urinary tract infections, viral hepatitis and MRSA. The Australian study also found that more than half of the tested residents had received antibiotics within three months of being tested. Overuse of antibiotics can lead to higher rates of superbugs or other infections like C. difficile, which can be lethal in seniors. (On a personal note, my grandmother recently died from complications after a C. diff infection.)

ABC—“‘(Our concern is) that nursing homes are acting as a kind of reservoir, if you like, of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We know these residents have fairly frequent movement in and out of acute care institutions, and this obviously poses risks to acute care hospitals for transmission. It could be transmitted to other patients in an acute care hospital, if the resident actually has an infection they might be infected with a more resistant bacteria – they’re the two main concerns.’”

George Washington, the First Vaxxer

This week, the Daily Beast provided an excerpt from historian Tom Shachtman’s new book, Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment. At a time where people are choosing to forgo vaccinations and alarm over Ebola grows worldwide, it is amazing to see George Washington—Virginian, 1st President, Founding Father, serious boss, and old fashioned speller—decide that army immunization would not only save the lives of soldiers, but indirectly safeguard a young American nation. Shachtman recounts a February 1777 letter from Washington to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress.

The Daily Beast—“‘The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way. I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr Shippen to innoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia. They will lose no time, because they will go thro’ the disorder while their cloathing Arms and accoutrements are getting ready.’”

This Week in Ebola

The first (and only) patient with a domestically diagnosed case of Ebola died this week in Dallas, TX amid calls, and responses, about tightening airport screening and travel restrictions. Six major American international airports have enhanced screening for travellers arriving from West Africa while airline workers at LaGuardia have protested over what they say are inadequate protections from potential Ebola exposure. In other air travel related news, a passenger was removed from a US Airways flight after joking about being infected with Ebola and a sick passenger traveling from West Africa to Newark airport does not have Ebola. A nurse in Spain did get infected with the virus this week, as other European nations fear further spread inside their countries. American Ebola survivor Dr. Rick Sacra was hospitalized and treated this week for pneumonia and another American Ebola survivor, Dr. Kent Brantly donated his blood in order to help treat an infected NBC cameraman.

Evidently one fifth of Americans, according to a Gallup poll, are concerned about getting Ebola which is causing the ‘apocalypse business’ to boom. Meanwhile, West Africans living in the U.S. are taking action to spread information within their communities about the virus and there was a wonderful piece on how Nigeria beat Ebola. Finally, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden spoke this week on how this Ebola outbreak is like the AIDS epidemic and why he doesn’t support a travel ban to combat the outbreak. All of this comes at a point in time where the number of deaths from the outbreak has reached over 4000.

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Immunize.ca

Pandora Report 4.18.14

I think I was coming down with something yesterday. It manifested as a pretty debilitating headache, so I am pretty sure it wasn’t Ebola, but I also had no desire to drink water, so it might have been rabies. Either way, I’m feeling much better today, and am excited to bring you a Saturday issue of Pandora Report. In fact, I’m pretty sure there is nothing that is more fun on the weekend…so let’s get into it!


Highlights include Bird Flu in North Korea, a TB drug that may be the answer to drug resistance, a new strain of Ebola, MERS CoV’s spread to Asia, and Tamiflu’s real utility. Have a great weekend and see you here next Friday!

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak in North Korea

On April 16, the North Korean veterinary authority sent a notice to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) alerting them to two H5N1 outbreaks among poultry in the isolated nation. This is a surprisingly transparent move. The first outbreak occurred at the Hadang chicken factory in Hyongjesan starting on March 21. All 46,217 birds died. A second outbreak occurred on March 27 in the same region at the Sopo chicken factory where an unreported number of birds died in the same cage. The source of the infection remains unknown.

The Poultry Site—“Usual control measures have been put in place to control the spread of infection: quarantine, movement control inside the country, screening and disinfection of infected premises/establishment(s). There is no vaccination and no treatment of affected birds.”

Could a new TB drug be the answer to resistance?

A research study at the University of Illinois shows that a new drug under clinical trials for tuberculosis treatment—SQ109—may be the basis for an entirely new class of drugs that could act against bacterial, fungal, and parasite infection and yet evade resistance. Lead researcher, chemistry professor Eric Oldfield, believes that multiple-target drugs like SQ109 and its analogs hold the key to new antibiotic development in the era of drug resistance and “the rise of so-called ‘superbugs’.” His claim is bolstered by experiments with SQ109 and TB where no instances of resistance have been reported.

Science Codex—“’Drug resistance is a major public health threat,” Oldfield said. “We have to make new antibiotics, and we have to find ways to get around the resistance problem. And one way to do that is with multi-target drugs. Resistance in many cases arises because there’s a specific mutation in the target protein so the drug will no longer bind. Thus, one possible route to attacking the drug resistance problem will be to devise drugs that don’t have just one target, but two or three targets.’”

Outbreak in West Africa is caused by a new strain of Ebola virus

As the death toll from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa climbs above 120, scientists are reporting that the virus is not the same strain that has killed in other African nations.  While the source of the virus is still unknown, blood samples from Guinea victims has confirmed that it is not imported strains of Ebola Zaire—the original strain of the virus discovered in Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire.)

The Huffington Post—“‘It is not coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has not been imported to Guinea” from that country or from Gabon, where Ebola also has occurred, [Dr. Stephan] Gunther [of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany] said.

Researchers think the Guinea and other strains evolved in parallel from a recent ancestor virus. The Guinea outbreak likely began last December or earlier and might have been smoldering for some time unrecognized. The investigation continues to try to identify “the presumed animal source.’”

MERS CoV leaves the Middle East and travels to Asia

Though the method of transmission of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) remains unknown—a report last week from the CDC finds the virus can stay alive in Camel milk—and thankfully, transmission from human to human has been rare, the disease has now spread beyond the Middle East to Asia via an infection emerging in Malaysia. A Malaysian man returning from Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, tested positive for, and died from, MERS on April 13. So far, a reported 33 people who have travelled to the Middle East for the Haj have tested negative for presence of the virus in neighboring Singapore.

Today Online—“There is currently no advisory against travel to countries of the Arabian Peninsula, or to countries reporting imported cases of MERS-CoV (including Malaysia).

Frequent travellers to the Middle East and Umrah/Haj pilgrims have been advised to take precautions, such as being vaccinated against influenza and meningitis. Those aged 65 years and above or with chronic medical conditions should also get vaccinated against pneumococcal infections before travelling. Pilgrims with pre-existing chronic medical conditions like diabetes, chronic heart and lung conditions should consult a doctor before traveling, to assess whether they should make the pilgrimage.”

A closer look at Tamiflu

With seasonal flu season behind us in the U.S., maybe it is time to look at better treatment options. A study published last week in the British Medical Journal, calls into question the effectiveness of Oseltamivir—brand name, Tamiflu. The international team of researchers found that while Tamiflu can shorten flu symptoms it does not reduce hospital admissions or medical complications. The study also demonstrated that Tamiflu can also cause nausea and vomiting and increases the risk of headaches and renal and psychiatric symptoms.

Global Biodefense—“‘The trade-off between benefits and harms should be borne in mind when making decisions to use oseltamivir for treatment, prophylaxis, or stockpiling,” concludes the study authors from The Cochrane Collaboration, an independent global healthcare research network. “There is no credible way these drugs could prevent a pandemic,” Carl Heneghan, one of the lead investigators of the review and a professor at Oxford University, told reporters. “Remember, the idea of a drug is that the benefits should exceed the harms. So if you can’t find any benefits, that accentuates the harms.’”

(Image credit: Robert Sharp/Flickr)