Pandora Report 2.1.15

No themed coverage this week, sadly. However, we’ve got stories covering the Federal fight against antibiotic resistance, ISIS airstrikes, and super mosquitoes in Florida. All this in addition to stories you may have missed.

Have a fun Super Bowl Sunday (go team!) and a safe and healthy week!

Obama Asking Congress to Nearly Double Funding to Fight Antibiotic Resistance to $1.2 Billion

One of The White House’s goals for 2015 was to combat growing antibiotic resistance through research into new antibiotics and efforts to prevent the over prescription of these vital drugs. President Obama is requesting that Congress add additional funding to this fight, bringing the total to $1.2 billion. The funding will be a start, but there are many other things that can happen in order to fight this extremely important problem.

U.S. News & World Report—“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 23,000 Americans die every year from infections that can withstand some of the best antibiotics. The World Health Organization said last year that bacteria resistant to antibiotics have spread to every part of the world and might lead to a future where minor infections could kill.”

Air Strike Kills IS ‘Chemical Weapons Expert’

News came Saturday morning that U.S. airstrikes in Iraq last week killed a mid-level Islamic State militant who specialized in chemical weapons. Killed on January 24, Abu Malik had worked at Saddam Hussein’s Muthana chemical weapons production facility before joining Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2005.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—“Officials say his death could “temporarily degrade” the group’s ability to produce and use chemical weapons. Coalition air strikes have pounded the Mosul area over the past week [and] The U.S.-led coalition has carried out more than 2,000 air raids against IS militants in Syria and Iraq since August 8.”

Millions of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Could Fight Disease in Florida

On January 11, we had a small note about the possibility of genetically modified mosquitos controlling diseases like chikungunya and dengue, but this week coverage on this issue absolutely exploded! British biotech firm Oxitec plans to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos in Florida to control the existing population and help control the spread of these diseases. The A. Aegypti species of mosquito is extremely prevalent in Florida and recently has become resistant to most chemical pesticides. Residents, of course, are up in arms over the potential release of this “mutant mosquito”.

The Weather Channel—“Technology similar to this is already in use in Florida and other states, Entomology Today points out. Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) employs a similar technique, sterilizing insects so that when they mate, no offspring are produced. “Florida spends roughly $6 million a year using SIT to prevent Mediterranean fruit fly infestations, while California spends about $17 million a year,” Entomology Today wrote.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 5.9.14

The stories this week cover topics that I am especially interested in: avian flu in Antarctica, wild poliovirus, and the Russia biological weapons program. Have a great weekend!

Avian Influenza Present in Antarctic Penguins

A team of international researchers have discovered a new strain of avian influenza among Adelie penguin populations in Antarctica which has been identified as H11N2. Presence of this strain of influenza was found in eight penguins from a sample size of 301 swabbed penguins and 270 penguins who had had blood drawn. Though the six adult penguins and two chicks only represent 2.6% of the total group, approximately 16% of the samples contained antibodies for H11N2, indicating the virus has likely been present in the population for “some length of time.”

Guardian Liberty Voice—“There has already been a theory posited which might explain how the H11N2 virus was transmitted to the Antarctic region. Due to both the relatively small incidence of the virus in the sample population, and the region from which the sample size was drawn. Hurt has posited that the introduction of the virus into the Antarctic ecosystem was conducted by migratory birds from South America, such as the yellow-billed pintail duck. This conclusion has been supported by the fact that distant similarities between the H11N2 strain of the virus and South American AIVs, primarily from Brazil and Chile, do in fact exist.”

Wild Poliovirus Making a Comeback, WHO says

In a statement made on Monday, the WHO applauded worldwide efforts to eradicate polio while cautioning that the wild poliovirus is spreading and may negate the hard fought eradication efforts. They declared this spread of wild poliovirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and warned that if the spread remains unchecked “this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases.” The WHO declared that Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria pose the greatest risk of wild poliovirus exportation while Afghanistan, Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria are infected with wild poliovirus but are not exporting it.

National Geographic—“The effort is to break the chains of transmission. The WHO is recommending that countries currently infected with polio ensure that their people who are traveling outside the country get vaccinated. About 72 percent of the people who are infected with the polio virus have no symptoms, but they can still spread the disease. Polio is now in just a few countries. The concern is not to re-infect the countries that have gotten rid of polio.”

Lawmakers Mull Biological Weapons Threat from Russia

Providing an opportunity for me to majorly geek out, the U.S. House of Representatives held a committee hearing this week regarding the biological weapons threat from Russia and beyond. Witnesses included Dr. Christopher Davis, a biomedical weapons expert and former member of the U.K.’s Defense Intelligence Staff; Dr. Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies; Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland and author of The Soviet Biological Weapons Program; and Dr. David Franz, former Commander of USAMRIID.

Time—“Leitenberg said it’s almost impossible to evaluate the extent of the Russian biological weapons stockpile because three Russian laboratories remain closed to outside inspection. “We don’t know what they’re doing,” Leitenberg said. ‘They may or may not have an active offensive program—I presume they do. I do not believe that the U.S. government thinks they are producing and stockpiling agent any more, but we don’t know that.’”

A recording of the hearing is available here.

 

Image Credit: Andrew Mandemaker/ Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 4.11.14

Ebola is still raging in West Africa and experts are planning for a long battle, however, every week can’t be about Ebola. So let’s jump into it!

Highlights include The START treaty, Chemical Weapons in Syria, H1N1 in otters and public outcry over Chilis (but not their baby back ribs.) Have a great weekend!

New START Data Show Russian Increase, US Decrease Of Deployed Warheads

With many Russia watchers nervously waiting to see if moves are made towards Ukraine, new data this week shows that Russia has actually increased their counted deployed strategic nuclear forces since September 2013 under the START treaty. Under the new treaty, by 2018, both Russia and the U.S. agree to no more than 1,550 strategic warheads on 700 deployed launchers. Russia has been under this limit since 2012—before the treaty was even signed—while the U.S. has yet to reduce below the treaty limits.

Federation of American Scientists– “Since the treaty was signed in 2010, the United States has reduced its counted strategic forces by 104 deployed launchers and 215 warheads; Russia has reduced its counted force by 23 launchers and  25 warheads. The reductions are modest compared with the two countries total inventories of nuclear warheads: Approximately 4,650 stockpiled warheads for the United States (with another 2,700 awaiting dismantlement) and 4,300 stockpiled warheads for Russia (with another 3,500 awaiting dismantlement).”

Another Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria?

 After Syria signed a chemical weapons dismantlement agreement in September 2013 (brokered by Russia, the U.S. and the UN), it appears they have reneged on their word. Reports from “credible” sources say that there have been chemical weapons attacks in the cities of Harasta and Jobar over the past couple weeks. With the eyes of the world on Russia and Ukraine, and U.S. naval destroyers loaded with tomahawk missiles departed from the Mediterranean, Assad may be benefitting from a lack of international oversight.

The Wall Street Journal-“There is no credible evidence to suggest that rebel groups in the Damascus area have acquired the materials or know-how to mount chemical weapons on conventional artillery pieces in their possession. It can therefore be concluded that unless the rebels theatrically fabricated the effects of a chemical attack, the Assad regime was likely responsible for carrying them out. Notably, on March 25, Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari distributed a letter specifically warning that rebels would use chemical weapons in Jobar in order to blame the government. But if any party in the conflict would be prone to such conspiracy, it would be the Assad regime, whose decades of tutelage under the Russian KGB made their Mukhabarat (secret service) frighteningly efficient at false-flag tactics meant to smear the opposition.”

Swine Flu From 2009 Pandemic Also Struck Sea Otters

Turns out, the H1N1 pandemic from 2009 didn’t only affect humans…it affected otters! New research shows that otters off the Western coast of the United States were also infected with H1N1 as it affected people throughout the U.S. Seventy percent of the otters tested in 2011 showed antibodies (demonstrating previous infection) for H1N1. Previous research also showed that elephant seals living off the coast of California had been infected with H1N1 too.

U.S. News and World Report-“‘Our study shows that sea otters may be a newly identified animal host of influenza viruses,” study-co-author and USGS scientist Hon Ip said in a government news release. “We are unsure how these animals became infected,” lead author and CDC scientist Zhunan Li said in the news release. “This population of sea otters lives in a relatively remote environment and rarely comes into contact with humans.” The study was published in the May issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.”

Chili’s cancels fundraiser with National Autism Association

Last weekend, my favorite mid-range American restaurant, Chili’s announced that they would be partnering with the National Autism Association for a benefit on Monday, April 7. However, outcry over the NAA—and its anti-vaccination stance—forced Chili’s to change its mind (and continue to keep my business.) It is a striking demonstration of the power of consumers and social media and strikes a victory for those in favor of vaccinations and the good they bring to communities and herd immunity.

CNN-“The Chili’s spokeswoman said that the NAA was originally selected for the fundraiser “based on the percentage of donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism.”

Chili’s, which is owned by Brinker International (EAT), went on to say, “While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we canceled Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests.”’

 

(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire)

U.S. should move cautiously in isolating nuclear Russia

By Chris Brown

A vote on March 24, 2014, by leaders from the U.S. and six other nations to remove Russia from the G8 may well serve to isolate Vladimir Putin’s administration from a key economic and political forum. But Western allies should be careful in just how far away they aim to push Putin.

With what may be about half of the world’s nuclear weapons under Putin’s control, according to estimates from the Federation of American Scientists[1], it is arguably in the West’s best interest to keep Russia within diplomatic reach. Ties between security initiatives in the U.S. and Russia, particularly the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program created by the 1992 Nunn-Lugar law, contribute significantly to reducing the likelihood of nuclear mishaps by securing and dismantling weapons of mass destruction.

In addition to securing nuclear warheads through CTR programs, nuclear stability in Russia—like in other nuclear countries—also depends in part on positive control mechanisms operated by rationally behaving states. In best-case scenarios, those controls should be under the purview of civilian authorities. Keeping a watchful eye on Russia is especially important, then, given its increased show of military might. Aggressively annexing Crimea from Ukraine may suggest that the Russian government is growing less risk-averse and more militarily focused. More importantly, it could also be a marker of organizational behavior that could lead to an accidental or deliberate war. All of this echoes theorist Scott Sagan’s important concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation.[2]

If the world hopes to continue moving toward net reduction of nuclear weapons, it is crucial to maintain open dialogue between countries with nuclear capabilities. Four G8 members—the U.S., United Kingdom, France and, until today, Russia—are among the nine nuclear-weapon states and collectively hold more than 95 percent of all nuclear fire power. It is within this group of nations that measures aimed at confidence-building and mutual weapons cache reductions must flourish if they are to succeed at all. Though the international community needs to send a strong message to Putin over illegal land grabbing, any consequences Western powers impose in response must consider the world’s ability to calculate correctly Russian nuclear weapons activities and facilitate continued nuclear stability.

 

Image Credit: Yahoo.com


[1] “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists (FAS), accessed March 24, 2014, https://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html/.

[2]Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (New York: W.W. Norton & Company New York, 2003).


Chris Brown is a PhD candidate in biodefense at George Mason University. He holds a Master of Public Health in biostatistics and epidemiology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and received his undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in Spanish from the University of Louisville. Contact him at mcbrown12@gmu.edu or on Twitter @ckbrow07.

Destroying Chemical Weapons: A Highly Political and Technological Process

By Alena M. James

With tensions escalating between the western powers and Russia, the crisis in Ukraine has absorbed much of the international community’s attention these past few weeks. In doing so, the civil war in Syria and its efforts in cleaning up its chemical weapon’s arsenal have been placed on the backburner.  In a report titled, Russia-U.S. Tensions Could Stall Syrian Chemical Weapons Removal, NPR discussed the significance of the joint efforts of the US and Russia to get Bashar Al-Assad on board with committing to the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stock piles.  Now that the diplomatic relations between the western powers and Russia have soured, many worry about a delay in Syria’s commitment to eradicating its chemical weapons. The possibility of such an event taking place highlights the importance of the political aspect involved in ensuring chemical weapons cleanup.

Recently, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced that approximately half of the Syrian chemical weapons stock piles have been removed in the past few months—an accomplishment that has taken the US decades to move towards. The OPCW also announced that it intends to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014.  Such a goal appears incredibly ambitious and critics remain skeptical of this goal being achieved in the allotted amount of time due to the stressful international relations surrounding Syria and Russia.

Over the weekend, Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet after accusing Syria of violating its airspace, an act which is likely to further increase heightened tensions in the region and distract from the weapons cleanup process. Prior to the Ukrainian Crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US and Russia had played significant roles in the physical removal of the chemical weapons from the civil war torn state.  Russia provided security measures and the US provided transportation and decontamination equipment to help destroy the stockpiles.  The cleanup process was already a little behind schedule before relations between Russia and the US spiraled downward. Now with sanctions from the US and Europe against Russia, many fear that Russia will no longer provide the political support needed to influence Syria to continue removing the remaining stock of chemical weapons.

Presently, the western powers have already criticized Syria for its inability to meet earlier deadlines of chemical weapons removal.  While the delay can be linked with the current toxic political climate, lessons learned from the US’ chemical cleanup efforts suggest that years and even decades are necessary to safely cleanse a state of its chemical weapons arsenal leaving other factors to be considered as to why the cleanup process may not reach the June 30th deadline.

In a recently published article, “Deadly chemical weapons, buried and lost, lurk under U.S. soil,” The Los Angeles Timesreports on the US’ failure to destroy its own chemical weapons stockpiles dating back to World War II and acknowledges the existence of hundreds of chemical weapons still needing to be processed. According to the report, the US has more than 200 burial sites which include chemical agents such as mustard agents, blister agents, and nerve agents, like tabun produced by Nazi Germany.

Following the end of WWII, the US became the Goodwill Collection Center for the German, Japanese, and British chemical weapons stockpiles.  While some of the stockpiles were burned, the majority of the weapons were buried at the different sites around the country.  Sites located in Alabama and in Washington, DC received hundreds of chemical agents that were to be disposed of without any consideration of the possible environmental impact. Disposal methods also failed to consider the necessity of maintaining complete inventories of site locations, types of agents buried, or the amount of materials buried. In essence, the US does not know where all of the sites are until a civilian reports the presence of an odd looking canister of weapons ammunitions floating up on shore or sticking out of a garden in someone’s backyard in Northwest Washington. The lack of foresight regarding the destruction of chemical weapons at the end of WWII, has left future generations to deal with these issues; which presents a major challenge for cleanup efforts.

Director of Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability program, Paul Walker, acknowledges several other challenges involved in the chemical weapons cleanup process.  According to Walker, the technology selected to destroy chemical stockpiles must be politically acceptable by the community where the stockpile is being destroyed. The disposal technologies and strategies employed must ensure minimal impact on public and environmental health. The communities must be a part of the dialogue when planning for the development of decontamination facilities. Alternative methods to incineration must be sought. State investments in poor communities where multibillion dollar chemical cleanup operations are taking place need to continue, and open dialogue to build consensus, address issues, and obtain proper environmental permits also needs to take place.

Dr. Duane Linder, Director of Sandia National Laboratories, also acknowledges the importance of seeking new decontamination strategies due to environmental impacts. The primary methods of chemical disposal used to be “burn it, bury it, or dump it.” Now the approaches used to disengage these weapons and the materials used to fabricate the weapons focus on the use of a process called hydrolysis, a method where hot water is added to alter the molecular arrangement of the agent. While this process helps to neutralize the agent, hazmat chemical waste is still generated but is not as toxic as the original agent. The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, is a US built chemical destruction system that operates using the hydrolysis process.  The unit has been an incredible instrument involved in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

Although still facing numerous challenges, Syria seems to possess the technologies needed to reach OPCW’s June 30th cleanup deadline. However, only time will tell if the international political dichotomy between the West and Russia will impede the process.

 

Image Credit: Todd Lopez, defenseimagery.mil

Putin: Spotlight Seeker, Peace Keeper, Russian Defender

By Alena James

For the past several months, Russia, it seems, has been unable to avoid the spotlight.

In June 2013, we watched Russian President Vladimir Putin pass legislation prohibiting the portrayal of homosexuality—or “propaganda”—in the media.  The action sparked a backlash among LGBT Rights protesters.

In August, we witnessed Putin serve as a liaison between Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and the rest of the international community by encouraging Assad to concede his country’s chemical weapons stock piles after the use of chemical weapons in Damascus. This action led to increased tensions between the US and Russia.

In February 2014, we saw Russia in all of its glory as they hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, even despite rumors that the games would be the target of a Chechen terrorist attack.  Now this March, we see Russia back in the spotlight for its gutsiest move of the year.

Last weekend, Russian troops (bearing no Russian insignia) invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.  The invasion came at a time when the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, created a leadership vaccum and left pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions to fight against each other to determine the fate of the new Ukrainian government. Until last week, Putin had remained silent on the issue, but has now announced the mobilization of troops into the region to be at the request of PresidentYanukovych; who is wanted by the interim Ukrainian government for the mass murder of at least 75 protesters. Ukrainians protesting the mobilization in Crimea are appealing to western countries for support and a NATO meeting was scheduled for Wednesday to discuss the Crimean Crisis.

In an interview, Putin announced his unwillingness to consider the intermediate leaders controlling the Ukrainian government legitimate, and said Yanukoych is still Ukraine’s president. The Russian President further declared that the mobilization of troops into the peninsula was done at the request of the Yanukoych and within his scope as Russian President in order to protect all Russians residing in Ukraine.

So, what is Putin thinking? Could his negotiations with the ousted president be another display of his own political pageantry and expression of dominance in the region? Or are his intentions genuinely within the interests of the Russian people residing in Ukraine? Is it possible that Putin really just wants to test the US to see hard it can push? Or is Putin dreaming of a newly reconstructed Soviet Union envisioning himself as the supreme leader? Perhaps, he is just tired of western powers engaging in the region?  Let us know what you think by leaving your comments below.

For a transcript of Vladimir Putin’s interview can be found from the Washington Post.

Image Credit: http://www.kremlin.ru.