Pandora Report 05.17.15

Yowza! That’s another semester in the books for the GMU Biodefense students. Please excuse the sparse activity on the blog, but with the semester over, things should be getting back to normal.

This weekend we have a updates on Ebola and the bird flu outbreak in the U.S., plus other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week, (enjoy the Mad Men finale!) and see you back here next weekend!

Ebola is (still) living in an American doctor’s eye

As an update, Liberia has (finally) been declared Ebola free, the number of cases in Guinea continue to rise due to transmissions at funerals, and those in Sierra Leone are dying less from Ebola than from other diseases due to the collapse of the healthcare system. It’s been over a year and we are still learning things about Ebola and its persistence on hospital surfaces, sexual fluids, and now, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the eye. WHO volunteer Ian Crozier was diagnosed in Sierra Leone and transported to Emory University where he was treated. Months later he returned to the hospital with symptoms like blurred vision and acute pain in his left eye. The cause? Ebola.

The Washington Post—“Ebola may have found refuge in patients’ eyes because, researchers said, the eye is walled off from the immune system. As the New York Times put it: “The barriers are not fully understood, but they include tightly packed cells in minute blood vessels that keep out certain cells and molecules, along with unique biological properties that inhibit the immune system.” This phenomenon is called “immune privilege” — and it means the eye can harbor viruses.”

America’s $45 Billion Poultry Industry Has a (Really) Bad Case of Bird Flu

The title says it all, frankly. Since early December 2014 three strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza have been circulating in North America. A state of emergency has been declared in Iowa (one of the hardest hit states) and over 21 million birds have been killed to contain and prevent the spread of the virus. Beyond the culling of birds, the outbreak is having an affect on business—China, South Korea, and Mexico have banned imports of U.S. poultry (to protect their own industries.)

The Motley Fool—“Falling exports could hurt farmers, but it could also help to offset domestic price increases from less supply. Although, with tens of millions of bird deaths and no end in sight to the pandemic, domestic food prices could be the largest casualty in the end.”

Stories You May Have Missed


Image Credit: 8thstar

The Elimination of Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Beginning of the End or End of the Beginning?

Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW, has announced that the last shipment of chemical warfare agent precursors has been loaded onto the Danish ship Ark Futura at the Syrian port of Latakia. Syria is now officially free of chemical weapons.

The OPCW deserves a lot of credit (and yes, the Nobel Peace Prize) for its Herculean efforts to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war. While this final shipment closes a chapter on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program, it does not mean the story is over. Here are five things to keep in mind before we break out the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

First, Syria should have completed this final shipment over four months ago. The OPCW’s original deadline for removing all chemicals from Syria was February 5, The delay was due to the civil war, Syria’s use of the stockpiles as a bargaining chip, and domestic politics (Syria stopped making shipments during the Syrian presidential election).

Second, the process of actually destroying these chemicals, which is supposed to be completed by June 30, has only just begun. The most dangerous chemicals, including mustard agent and sarin precursors, will be destroyed on board the MV Cape Ray. It is estimated it will take the Cape Ray between 60 and 90 days to complete its mission but since this is an unprecedented at-sea chemical destruction process, the process could take even longer depending on the weather and unforeseen technical issues.

Third, the OPCW has only eliminated Syria’s declared stocks of chemical agents. During April and May 2014, rebels reported over a dozen attacks by government forces with air-dropped barrel bombs filled with chlorine. Although chlorine is not one of the chemicals that Syria was required to declare, the use of any chemical as a weapon is outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Just last week an OPCW fact-finding mission found that “toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks.”

Fourth, Syria has still not destroyed 12 chemical weapon production facilities located in aircraft hangars and in underground tunnels. Syria was supposed to have destroyed these facilities over three months ago but has been dragging its feet while insisting on the right to disable, instead of demolish, the facilities.

Fifth, serious questions are starting to emerge about “gaps and inconsistencies” in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapon program to the OPCW. Syria’s repeated delays in removing its chemical stockpile, refusal to destroy chemical weapon production facilities, and continued use of chemical weapons does not inspire confidence that it is in compliance with other aspects of the CWC. Now that the last of the declared chemicals are out of Syria, the OPCW will have more time and energy to devote to verifying the accuracy and completeness of Syria’s declared chemical weapon research, development, testing, production, and storage. Priority should be given to the 200 tons of mustard agent that Syria reportedly destroyed unilaterally before joining the CWC, Syria’s possession of the Volcano rocket which has been implicated in the August 2013 sarin attack, and Syria’s use of chlorine-filled barrel bombs.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end of efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, but the end of the beginning.

Chemical weapons team arrives in Syria; Blair on our options

In the last 48 hours, chemical weapons inspectors have crossed the border into Syria, reaching Damascus last night. The 19-member inspection team, sent from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague, will be responsible for verifying and dismantling the 1,000 tonne Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. The team will have approximately nine months to conduct their investigation and help the Syrian government destroy their arsenal by the middle of next year.

Charles Blair, GMU adjunct professor and columnist at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, recently published a piece on the fundamental issue at stake here – will it make any difference?

“Regardless of how Lavrov-Kerry fares, the Obama administration faces a high-stakes dilemma. If the agreement is successful, the Syrian civil war still threatens to metastasize—further destabilizing the entire region and, due to the West’s dependence on oil from the Middle East, threatening the world economy. In short, even without a Syrian chemical arsenal, and apart from the normal winter ebb in fighting, the civil war shows no signs of slowing down.

“But failure to rid Syria of the stockpile could result in additional chemical weapons use by the Assad regime and hastens the day when extremists acquire these arms, too. If Syria does not abide by the agreement, the United States would likely resort to air strikes, amid strong calls for a redoubling of efforts to quickly arm opposition forces with more weaponry. Both actions are inherently risky. Indeed, significant sections of Syria could fall under the rule of violent Islamists armed with chemical weapons. As an authority on terrorism at the RAND Corporation, Michael Jenkins, recently wrote me, ‘the Syrian civil war has significantly raised the risk that its chemical weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists, creating a greater international crisis than the one we think we have just solved.’”

Read more at the Bulletin.

(image: Steven Damron/Flickr)