Pandora Report: 4.8.2022

This week we discuss the BWC at 50, the CDC’s upcoming review, the Metaverse’s continued failure to flag Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories, and Shanghai in lockdown. We also cover a number of great new publications and exciting upcoming events. Finally, we want to congratulate Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley for recently winning the Runner-Up McElvany Award from the James Martin Center and the Nonproliferation Review!

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley Wins Runner-Up McElvany Award from James Martin Center and Nonproliferation Review

Biodefense faculty member, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, was recently selected as the Runner-up Prize winner for the Doreen and Jim McElvany Award from the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nonproliferation Review. Her paper, “From CRISPR Babies to Super Soldiers: Challenges and Security Threats Posed by CRISPR” reviews Dr. He Jiankui’s experiments and evaluates the risks of such uses of CRISPR for malevolent purposes. She focuses on the technical obstacles to this kind of abuse, offering fresh perspectives on this security challenge. Her work was praised by the judges for “…its thoroughness and for the sophistication of her analysis of the sociotechnical factors that made Dr. He’s experiments unsuccessful, building on prior research on synthetic biology and biological-weapons proliferation. One called it “an antidote” to worst-case thinking about the risks of misuse that the CRISPR gene-editing tool may pose.” A big congratulations to Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and the other winners!

The Biological Weapons Convention Turns 50

The Preparatory Committee’s (PrepCom) second session for the BWC’s upcoming Ninth Review Conference is currently ongoing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. This is in preparation for the Review Convention (RevCon) set to take place in August of this year. Much of the commentary surrounding PrepCom has focused on the critical need to improve the BWC and enforcement of it, particularly in light of the ongoing devastation caused by the pandemic and the nonproliferation and biosecurity threats posed by advancements in the biological sciences.

US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, released a statement discussing the BWC’s history, its clear importance, and the need to strengthen it today. Among other things, his statement highlighted that “The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the devastating impact that disease can have on the world. We must recognize that other biological risks are growing and take action to address them. We face not only an increased threat of naturally occurring diseases, but also the potential for laboratory accidents and the intentional misuse of life sciences and biotechnology. The weaponization of biological agents and toxins violates the BTWC and is unacceptable, and the use of biological weapons – in the words of the Convention – “would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” He called on this year’s RevCon to take “near-term, concrete action to strengthen the Convention and benefit States Parties in such areas as increasing resource for international assistance and cooperation and establishing a mechanism to review advances in science and technology.”

You can find the reports from this PrepCom here. A recording of UNIDIR’s event, Lessons Learned for the biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference, is also available here.

Facebook Fails to Appropriately Label 80% of Bioweapon Conspiracy Articles On Its Platform

It’s no secret that Facebook remains a fertile land for conspiracy theorists and fringe groups, despite the launch of platforms like Parler and Truth Social. In recent years, Facebook and other platforms have begun labeling misleading and false posts with warnings, with varying levels of success. For example, during the early 2021 US Senate election in Georgia (a state where the 2020 presidential election was decided by just 12,000 votes), Facebook failed to apply fact check labels to 60% of top-performing posts using false election information. This has been a recurring theme regarding health information throughout the pandemic as well. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no different either. According to a study released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate Similarly, Facebook failed to label 80% of articles on its service that promote conspiracy theories about US labs in Ukraine and Ukraine’s supposed intent to use CBW against Russia. The Center also found Facebook fails to label 91% of posts containing Russian propaganda about Ukraine posted between February 24 and March 14 this year. The Center is renewing its calls for Meta to better enforce its use of “false information”, “partly false information”, and “missing context” labels in light of its findings.

Shanghai in Lockdown

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to cling to its “zero-COVID” strategy, this time shutting down the entire city of Shanghai amid the city’s worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began. Shanghai, a major global trade and finance hub, is home to 25 million people, making it the most populated city proper in the world and the only city in East Asia with a GDP higher than that of its country’s capital. The city officially recorded over 130,000 cases since March 1 as of yesterday, April 7, according to CNN. While lockdowns (along with censorship and lies) have been key features of the CCP’s COVID-19 response, Shanghai has seen the breakdown of food delivery services, which have proven essential for those stuck in lock down cities. Meituan, one such delivery service, sent nearly 1,000 extra workers to Shanghai to help with this issue this week amid rising complaints of hunger and lack of access to other necessities. Other measures include implementation of next-day group deliveries, community bulk buying, and use of autonomous delivery vehicles to help alleviate some of the problems.

Furthermore, there is concern about an “immunity gap” in the PRC, meaning the population has little to no protection gained through infection and very low protection acquired from Chinese vaccines due to their poor quality. China, like many countries, also still struggles with providing antivirals to people who do contract the disease, further complicating the matter. All of this has led some to question whether this will seriously damage the CCP moving forward, particularly as frustrations in Shanghai rise, with more citizens becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns. This all comes, too, after many a debate about whether or not the authoritarian government system in the PRC would prove “better” at pandemic management, further demonstrating the complications of understanding the relationship between governance and outbreak management.

CDC to Undergo Month-Long Evaluation Following Relentless Criticism

CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, announced this week that her agency will undergo a month-log, sweeping review in response to the near constant criticism it has received in the last couple of years. According to CNN Health, “Starting April 11, Jim Macrae, an administrator with the US Department of Health and Human Services, will join the CDC for a month-long listening tour and assessment. Walensky said he will provide her with insight on how the delivery of the agency’s science and programs can be further strengthened as it transitions more of its Covid-19 response activities to its various centers, institutes and offices. Walensky also asked three senior leaders to gather feedback on the agency, including its current structure and suggestions for change.” CDC says it has worked over the last year to develop systems to speed up data reporting and scientific processes during pandemic response, though it says it now needs to institutionalize and formalize these approaches.

Walensky also said in her statement, “Never in its 75 years history has CDC had to make decisions so quickly, based on often limited, real-time, and evolving science. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented opportunities across HHS to review current organizational structures, systems, and processes, and CDC is working to strategically position and modernize the agency to facilitate and support the future of public health. As we’ve challenged our state and local partners, we know that now is the time for CDC to integrate the lessons learned into a strategy for the future.” The CDC has been criticized for being slow to recommend universal masking early in the pandemic, as well as its subsequent rapid changes on masking and booster policies, in addition to its recent halving of the isolation time for infected people.

Health Security Intelligence- An Operations Perspective

A new article was recently published in Intelligence and National Security focusing on the bridge between health security warning intelligence and hospital preparedness and response, titled “Health Security Warning Intelligence During First Contact With COVID: An Operations Perspective”. In it, Wilson et al. use Nevada’s experience with COVID-19 as a case study to show that “access to health security warning intelligence enabled avoidance of overwhelming patient demand and compromise of emergency response.”

New Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report

A new IPCC report released this week, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, offers a more optimistic perspective on the potential to seriously limit global warming to 1.5°C, citing factors like the “sustained decreases of up to 85% in the costs of solar and wind energy, and batteries” in the last decade. “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee.  “I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective.  If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”

New AMR Strategic Plan from WHO and Others

The WHO, UN Environment Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and World Organisation for Animal Health recently released their new strategic plan for combatting AMR, “Together for One Health: Strategic Framework for Collaboration on Antimicrobial Resistance”. Among other things, the framework discusses the benefits of this specific collaboration and identified key goals and implementation strategies, including building countries’ capacities to ensure policy coherence across sectors.

IMF’s Global Strategy for Long-Term COVID-19 Risks

The International Monetary Fund recently released its latest strategy for COVID-19, “A Global Strategy to Manage the Long-Term Risks of COVID-19”, which assesses outcomes for scenarios ranging from a mild endemic disease to future dangerous variants emerging. Its strategy implications focus on broad healthcare equity, disease surveillance and monitoring, transition from an acute response to a sustainable, long-term one, and a unified risk-mitigation approach to future disease threats.

Biological and Chemical Warfare in Ancient Myth and History

Dr. Adrienne Mayor is delivering Loyola University Chicago’s Callahan Lecture this discussing her work, including her book, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Unconventional Warfare in the Ancient World. The lecture will be available on Zoom on April 11, 2022 at 5 pm CST. Register here.

ASPR TRACIE Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare System Considerations

Join presenters from the federal and private sectors as they discuss ASPR TRACIE’s newly released Climate Change Resilience and Healthcare System Considerations document and accompanying Topic Collection; current and future HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) and Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) efforts and priorities as they pertain to climate change; and the critical role of health systems in advancing environmental stewardship to achieve health equity. The webinar will take place from 2:30-3:30 PM (ET) on Monday, April 18, 2022Register today.

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:

Lessons From the First Time Russia Accused the United States of Biowarfare

Dr. Conrad Crane of the US Army War College authored this piece in War on the Rocks discussing the Soviet Union’s false claims that the US used BW against North Korea and China during the Korean War.

Will Russia Use Chemical Weapons in Ukraine? Researchers Evaluate the Risks

Davide Castelvecchi reports in this Nature News Explainer, discussing Western government’s worries about Russian CW, probable Russian thinking on the use of CW in the conflict, and prevention and detection measures.

Unmasking “Clandestine,” the Figure Behind the Viral “Ukrainian Biolab” Conspiracy Theory

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism recently released this article discussing the identity and background of “Clandestine”, a Virginia man and ARNG veteran who helped spur the biolab conspiracy theory in the US.

Pandora Report: 4.1.2022

This week we discuss ongoing Russian attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and global response to the threat of WMD use in Ukraine. We also cover the Biden administration’s budget requests for science in the coming fiscal year, the WHO’s new strategy for genomic surveillance, and the United States’ new special representative to the BWC. We round out with a myriad of new publications, including one on hypoallergenic CRISPR kitties, and updates to our collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation.

Sign of the Times? Gruinard Island Is On Fire

Continuing with this decade’s general trend, an uninhabited Scottish island once used for germ warfare experiments in the early half of the 20th century caught fire this week. The island, 1 km off the mainland’s shore at its closest point, has long since been uninhabited. However, rumors of its secrets spread to the mainland over the decades as sheep, cows, and horses mysteriously died following anthrax tests on livestock during WWII, as revealed by a declassified film from the British Ministry of Defence. It even took the Ministry 24 years after the tests to mention the anthrax risk on the island’s warning signs, according to the BBC. The Ministry finally declared the island anthrax-free in 1990, further indicating these is little risk in this situation, but the internet was quick to point out how characteristic of the 2020s headlines about the “Anthrax Island” catching fire are. Check out the BBC’s documentary on the Dark Harvest Commando’s trip to the island in 1981 here.

Russia Continues Attacks On Ukrainian Healthcare Facilities

According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 70 attacks targeting hospitals, ambulances, and providers in Ukraine. That number, the organization states, continues to increase on a daily basis. As of this morning, the Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care put this number at 82 since the start of February, with most of the recent attacks being classified as either violence with heavy weapons or removal of healthcare assets. A number of videos of attacks on Ukrainian facilities continue to circulate online, including footage corroborated by the BBC and other outlets of the shelling of the newly refurbished hospital in Izyum on March 8. At the time, the hospital was treating “children, pregnant women and three newborn babies as well as soldiers and civilians injured in fierce fighting in the region, according to the Ukrainian authorities.” While many of these attacks have focused on damaging hospitals, transports, and supplies, the WHO has recorded the “”probable” abduction or detention of healthcare staff and patients.” Civilian hospitals are protected under Article 18 of the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Exceptions to this come only under circumstances such as when civilian healthcare facilities are being used to shield healthy combatants or if they are placed near legitimate military targets. Violations of this rule can be investigated by the International Criminal Court, allowing individual perpetrators to be prosecuted and punished if found guilty of war crimes.

WMD and CBRN Concerns in the War Persist

Science also reported this week that, although the power was restored on 14 March to the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, according to Anatolii Nosovskyi (Director of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv), looters made off radioactive isotopes used to calibrate instruments and pieces of radioactive waste. Concerns over these stem from the fact these materials could be used to help create a dirty bomb when mixed with conventional explosives. Chornobyl is not the only nuclear facility at risk, as facilities like Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology have also been attacked, in what Nosovskyi describes as “state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi called the Zaporizhzhya shelling a “close call” as the projectiles, thankfully, missed the facility’s reactor halls. The Science article explains the unique concerns about Chornobyl, writing, “But Chornobyl has a unique set of radioactive hazards. On 11 March, wildfires ignited in the nearby radioactive forests, which harbor radioisotopes that were disgorged in the accident and taken up by plants and fungi. Russian military activities have prevented firefighters from entering the exclusion zone, Nosovskyi says.” This comes amid continued international concerns the Russians could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.

This prompted the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction to release a statement this week decrying Russia’s invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine and the subsequent concerns of WMD use, writing “We are outraged that the threat of use of weapons of mass destruction has been evoked in the course of this conflict and that military action is creating serious CBRN risks for the population and the environment, with the potential for catastrophic results.” The statement continues, “Ukraine is a long-standing, constructive and committed member of the Global Partnership with an exemplary non-proliferation record, as demonstrated by its renouncing of nuclear weapons inherited from the former Soviet Union in 1994. For more than two decades, Global Partnership members have worked together with Ukraine to increase the safety and security of facilities dealing with sensitive nuclear, biological or chemical materials for exclusively peaceful purposes and to support and enhance protective capabilities against the abuse of such materials.” This has also prompted renewed discussion of nuclear responsibility, including this piece by Ariel Levite (former Principal Deputy Director General for Policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission) and Toby Dalton from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discussing the risks of a nuclear power accident and Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Biden White House Aims High in Science Budget Requests (Again)

President Biden submitted to Congress a 2023 budget request that calls for a 9.5% increase in domestic discretionary spending. Science reports “Biden is asking for a 19% increase at the National Science Foundation (NSF), a 9.6% boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 4.5% more for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and a 5% hike for NASA’s science missions. Once again, fighting climate change and boosting sustainable energy technologies also rank high among Biden’s research priorities.” However, last year, even with the Democrats in control, Biden’s first budget requests for science funding were seriously downsized in Congress’s final 2022 spending bill. Science explains, “For example, legislators shrank Biden’s proposed budget for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) from $6.5 billion to $1 billion, instead giving NIH’s existing institutes a boost of 5%. But ARPA-H remains a presidential favorite, with Biden requesting a total of $5 billion for it in 2023.” In an effort to garner bipartisan support, Biden requested to increase defense spending by 4% this year and has focused this request on addressing the federal deficit by reducing overall spending (though he still proposed to raise taxes on the super wealthy). The US budget deficit hit a record $1.7 trillion in the first half of the fiscal year, amid huge spending for pandemic relief including the $1.9 trillion economic rescue package passed last March. The budget request does push for increased funding for agencies like HHS and local public health funding, but some, including Secretary of HHS Xavier Becerra, seem worried this will not be enough to “finish the job” on COVID-19.

Kenneth D. Ward Named US Special Representative to the Biological Weapons Convention

The US Department of State and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie D. Jenkins announced this week that Kenneth Ward is the Biden administration’s new pick to represent the US at the BWC. Ward boasts a 30-year career in arms control and nonproliferation with the US Department of State and the former US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, having previously served as the US Ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, with previous assignments as the Director of the Office of Chemical and Biological Weapons Affairs in State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, and the Deputy Negotiator during the 2004-2007 WMD elimination effort in Libya. This is a critical time for the BWC, especially with its ninth review conference set to be held later this year, so strong US representation is a must.

WHO- One in Three Countries Do Not Have Genomic Surveillance Capacity

The WHO released its new 10-year strategy to improve genomic surveillance of pathogens globally. While few countries historically have been able to do genomic surveillance routinely in-country (largely because of how complicated and expensive the process is), COVID-19 has helped change this. WHO explains “Data collected by WHO show that in March 2021, 54% of countries had this capacity. By January 2022, thanks to the major investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number had increased to 68%. Even greater gains were made in the public sharing of sequence data: in January 2022, 43% more countries published their sequence data compared to a year before.” Importantly, the new “Global Genomic Surveillance Strategy for Pathogens with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential 2022-2032″ is not pathogen- or disease threat-specific. Rather, it aims to provide a high-level framework to “…leverage existing capacities, address barriers and strengthen the use of genomic surveillance worldwide.” It tries specifically to address the potential for the gaps and increased inequity the greater use of this technology might lead to as well, particularly in assessing workforce training and needs. Genomic surveillance proved critical in this pandemic in identifying the novel coronavirus and creating diagnostic tests and vaccines for it, so it is critical to continue investing in this technology and global capacity.

Is It Time For a National Biorisk Management Agency?

A new article in Health Security by Ritterson et al. discusses the merits of creating a new, centralized federal entity that would act as mission control for biorisk oversight in the United States. They explain the current patchwork system of biorisk management in the US federal government that is highly dependent on the pathogens researchers are using, where their funding comes from, and the location of the lab in question. As an example of this, they point to the fact that the CDC and USDA are able to regulate labs that possess agents on the select agent lists, but they have very little control over labs that are researching other transmissible agents. While they applaud the Biden administration for recognizing these risks, they write that the current plan of action doesn’t address major gaps, writing “Currently, the US government does not know the location of laboratories working with pathogens, what pathogens are being studied within these laboratories, or the conditions under which these laboratories are operating—something the US Government Accountability Office itself has repeatedly recognized as a serious issue.” Furthermore, they explain the challenges of oversight in privately funded institutions, who can technically do research on pathogens like H2N2 influenza, including trying to make it more transmissible, with no federal, state, or local entity having much power to do anything about it. While there is robust debate on the merits of such research, the authors of this piece conclude that a new federal entity with better oversight and enforcement mechanisms is needed to help address the conflicts of interest situations like this can create, as well as broader biorisk management issues in the US.

Addressing Inaccurate Information on Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration

The National Academies Press has released this new report, Addressing Inaccurate and Misleading Information About Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration and Communication in Southeast Asia, which discusses how scientists can work collaboratively across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify and address inaccuracies that could fuel mis- and disinformation. The authors explain that, “Some false claims may be addressed through sound scientific analysis, suggesting that scientists can help counter misinformation by providing evidence-based, scientifically defensible information that may discredit or refute these claims,” and continue by writing, ” Although the study focused on a scientific network primarily in Southeast Asia, it is relevant to scientists in other parts of the world.” Biodefense faculty member Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley contributed to this report.

The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters

Juliette Kayyem, former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Intergovernmental Affairs, recently released this book discussing the realities of living in a time “…of constant, consistent catastrophe, where things more often go wrong than they go right.” In The Devil Never Sleeps, Juliette Kayyem lays the groundwork for a new approach to dealing with disasters. Presenting the basic themes of crisis management, Kayyem amends the principles we rely on far too easily. Instead, she offers us a new framework to anticipate the “devil’s” inevitable return, highlighting the leadership deficiencies we need to overcome and the forward thinking we need to harness. It’s no longer about preventing a disaster from occurring, but learning how to use the tools at our disposal to minimize the consequences when it does. Kayyem also recently discussed disaster management with Jen Patja Howell on the Lawfare Podcast.

“Here CRISPR Kitty?”

In great news for all of us who just can’t seem to help petting cats even though we know we will suffer shortly afterward- Researchers at InBio, formerly known as Indoor Biotechnologies, reported in a new article published in The CRISPR Journal that they have made progress in treating people with cat allergies, though there is still the goal of creating a hypoallergenic cat. The journal explains, “About 15 percent of the population suffer allergies to domestic cats, which researchers have previously shown is largely attributable to what the Atlantic called “a pernicious little protein” — an allergen called Fel d 1 that is shed by all cats. In the new study, Nicole Brackett and colleagues at InBio performed a bioinformatics analysis of the Fel d 1 gene from 50 domestic cats to pinpoint conserved coding regions suitable for CRISPR editing. Further comparisons to genes in eight exotic felid species revealed a high degree of variation, suggesting that Fel d 1 is nonessential for cats. The researchers used CRISPR-Cas9 to disrupt Fel d 1 with high efficiency.” The authors claim Fel d 1, based on their data, is a viable candidate for gene deletion to help cat allergy sufferers by removing the relevant major allergen at the source. The journal also writes, “The study paves the way for further experiments exploring the use of CRISPR as a potential genetic therapy to muzzle the release of cat allergens.”

Categorizing Sequences of Concern by Function To Better Assess Mechanisms of Microbial Pathogenesis

Godbold et al.’s new minireview in Infection and Immunity tackles the question of how best to regularize descriptions of microbial pathogenesis. In other words, how should we describe what makes “bag bugs” bad? This review assesses adequacy of annotations of sequences with a role in microbial pathogenesis using existing controlled vocabularies and sequence databases. According to the article, “We relate the categorization of more than 2,750 sequences of pathogenic microbes through a controlled vocabulary called Functions of Sequences of Concern (FunSoCs). These allow for an ease of description by both humans and machines. We provide a subset of 220 fully annotated sequences in the supplemental material as examples. The use of this compact (∼30 terms), controlled vocabulary has potential benefits for research in microbial genomics, public health, biosecurity, biosurveillance, and the characterization of new and emerging pathogens.”

Fifth Annual Global Health 50/50 Report Released

Global Health 50/50 has just released their fifth annual report, “Boards for all?”, which presents the organization’s first-ever analysis of the gender and geography of who governs public health. According to Global Health 50/50, the field of global health is not living up to its name. The organization writes, “The report further presents its annual review of the equality- and gender-related policies and practices of 200 global organisations. Building on five years of evidence, it finds signs of rapid progress in building more equitable and gender-responsive global health organisations, while also revealing stagnating progress among a large subset of global health organisations. For the first time, the Index categorises all organisations by performance and presents dedicated pages for each organisation to explore and compare findings.” The report calls for global representation and equitable global health governance.

National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters Meeting

The next public meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters (NACIDD) will take place on Friday, April 1 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET. Registration for this event is required and can be accessed along with additional meeting information through the online event page. Join federal leaders, NACIDD members, distinguished guests, and other experts as we discuss topics on the challenges, opportunities, and priorities related to addressing the needs of people with disabilities.  Hear from Amy Nicholas, Senior Attorney Advisor, for the National Council on Disability, sharing “Lessons Learned on the Efficacy of Federal Programs and Policies for People with Disabilities Before, During, and After Disasters”.  The meeting will also be joined by Sachin Dev Pavithran, Ph.D., Executive Director, with the US Access Board, discussing, “Providing Temporary Aide and Accessible, Transportable Housing During Disaster Events”.

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. Below are some highlights from the last couple of weeks, with the updates since last week in red:

Russia’s Lies About Bioweapons in Ukraine Make the World Less Safe

Wired released this article late this week discussing the importance of Ukraine’s labs to global public health and how Russian lies about them risk public health in Ukraine, in the region, and around the world.

Ukraine: Is a Chemical or Biological Attack Likely?

Chatham House released this explainer this week discussing the historical context of Russian CBW and disinformation as well as assessing the likelihood of such attacks in the current conflict, which the authors determine are unlikely but still concerning.

Have You Been Lied to About Ukrainian Biolabs? 

Drs. Filippa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz recently hosed this even on Twitter Space discussing the ongoing bioweapon claims targeting labs in Ukraine. A recording of the event is available here and the transcript can be found here.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

DTRA has released this fact sheet discussing its support for Ukrainian labs and other key facts, including details of Russia’s illegal and dangerous takeover of multiple Ukrainian-owned labs. They have also released a YouTube video discussing the program and the beneficial work it has done and continues to do in disarmament and public health.

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

The PRIF Blog published this piece explaining and refuting Russia’s BW claims while also addressing concerns that these claims could be used as a pretext for a chemical weapons attack against Ukraine. Read more here.

Council on Strategic Risks

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell at CSR authored a piece, “The Deeply Dangerous Spread of Russian Disinformation on Biological Weapons,” discussing the implications of Russia’s debunked claims. Of the idea that Russia might use WMDs in this war, they quote Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, writing “If Russia does commit such atrocities, “There would be a very strong and united international response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, both of which are banned by the chemical and biological weapons conventions,” Andy Weber emphasized.”

Nuclear Threat Initiative

Hayley Severance and Jacob H. Heckles with NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs team explained some of the dangers of this Russian propaganda, focusing on the division and confusion it sows and the potential for this to later allow Russia to be viewed as justified in their invasion and war against Ukraine. Check out the piece, “Russian Propaganda Established a Dangerous, Permissive Environment,” here.

Congressional Research Service

CRS, the public policy research institute of the United States Congress, released a CRS Insight addressing members’ of Congress questions and concerns regarding these laboratories. It discusses the dangers combat operations pose to these facilities and potential courses of action Congress might consider taking as a result of these issues.

CBW Events Ukraine FAQ Page

CBW Events has created a one-stop-shop for all your questions on this issue here. CBW Events is “a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare and its prevention are developed.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz Was Recently Quoted in Numerous Outlets Discussing These Claims

Dr. Koblentz has been working overtime taking interviews to help combat this disinformation. Below are some of the quotes he provided within the last couple of weeks across various news outlets and debunking sites.

Deutschlandfunk– “Hält sich Russland an die Biowaffenkonvention?” (German: “Does Russia Comply With the Biological Weapons Convention?”)

  • Audio recording features segments of an interview with Dr. Koblentz discussing Russia’s past with WMD claims and its interaction with the BWC

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists– “Amid False Russian Allegation of US “Biolabs” in Ukraine, It’s Worth Asking: What Is a Bioweapon?”

  • This article features Dr. Koblentz extensively, discussing in-depth factors like what characteristics would make for the ideal bioweapon, including considerations for blowback and potentially starting another pandemic

El Periodico– “El Ruido Sables Nucleares De Putin” (Spanish: “Putin’s Nuclear Saber Rattling”)

Daily Mail– “The 46 US Labs in Ukraine and the $200 Pentagon Program That Sparked a Propaganda War: How Ex-Soviet Facilities Adopted by America That House Pathogens Prompted Kremlin Bioweapons Claims in Putin’s Back Yard”

  • “‘These are all public health and veterinary labs,’ said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, according to Poynter. ‘None of them have been involved in biological warfare’.” 

The Washington Post– “A Legacy of ‘Secrecy and Deception’: Why Russia Clings to an Outlawed Chemical Arsenal”

  • “Novichok’s distinctive chemical formula differed from that of other known nerve agents, and because of this, Novichok was initially omitted from the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of banned substances. Russia could thus continue to tinker with the new weapon without technically violating their treaty obligations, said Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.”
  • ““Russia didn’t just inherit the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal; they also inherited the secrecy and deception that surrounded the program,” Koblentz said.”

Axios Science “Why Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use Are Hard to Investigate”

“What to watch: Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, says that, rather than use a chemical or biological weapon for an attack in Ukraine, there is a risk “Russia will invent or stage an event, claim it as an atrocity and use it domestically for escalating their commitment to the conflict.”

  • “Even if the U.S. and Ukrainians could expose this was staged or a hoax, on some level, the disinformation would be out there, and some would throw up their hands and say they don’t know and are going to sit it out,” he says.
  • Another concern for Koblentz is that unsubstantiated claims that bioweapons are being developed in Ukrainian labs that study and surveil pathogens like Crimean hemorrhagic fever could damage international cooperation on biosecurity and pathogen surveillance among labs around the world.

What’s next: The BCW is scheduled to meet in August to discuss how its mechanisms for resolving concerns about biological weapons compliance could be strengthened.

  • There had been signs over the past few years that parties may be willing to agree to measures that would facilitate verifying whether parties are complying. But “now there is no way it will be a constructive diplomatic event,” Koblentz says. “It’s been sacrificed for geopolitics.””

Bloomberg Quicktake– “Ukraine: Is Russia Planning to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

iNews– “How Russia’s Fake Claims About Ukraine Bioweapons Spread From Telegram Anti-Vaxxers to Fox News”

  • ““It goes back to the 1980s, when the KGB started a rumour that the United States occurred the HIV virus,” said Dr Greg Koblentz, Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.”

CNN What Matters– “Russia and Chemical Weapons: What You Need to Know”

  • Dr. Koblentz featured heavily in this article through a long interview discussing many facets of Russian CBW, including the difference between BW and CW, Russia’s obligations under international law, the potential for Russia to use such weapons against Ukraine, and more

Open– “No! Quelli in Ucraina Non Sono Laboratori Militari Per La Guerra Biologica” (Italian: “No! The Labs in Ukraine Are Not Biowarfare Labs”)

  • “Associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government , Gregory Koblentz, explains to Open why the Russian narrative of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine could be the first phase of a maneuver aimed at attributing to the A completely invented biological threat was born.”
  • “These laboratories are used to diagnose and conduct research on endemic diseases in Ukraine – explains Koblentz -, they are not designed or intended for use to conduct research on biological weapons. The concern is not whether Russia will take them over and use them to develop biological weapons. Moscow already has three large military microbiology facilities which it uses to conduct research and development on biological weapons. Instead, the concern is that Russia is leaking “evidence” fabricated in those labs and claiming to have uncovered a secret US-Ukraine program to develop biological weapons. Of course, such a statement would be nonsense.”
  • “The only way these laboratories could pose a danger would be if they were bombed, looted or occupied and unsuspecting individuals accidentally became infected with a leftover pathogen sample – continues the expert -, which was on site but no longer properly stored. . The WHO has told Ukraine to destroy the samples of high-risk pathogens in their laboratories for this reason ”.
  • “The United States and Ukraine have been transparent about the type of public health research conducted in these laboratories – concludes Koblentz -, as you can see on the US embassy website . The Defense Department has just released a new fact sheet explaining its assistance to Ukraine in this area. The BTRP strengthens biological health and safety in laboratories around the world and develops the capacity of these laboratories to diagnose and study diseases that pose a threat to public health in those countries. Since the onset of COVID-19, the program has also helped these countries respond to the pandemic by providing diagnostic kits, etc. “

EFE Verifica– “Nada Prueba Que Haya Laboratorios de Armas Biológicas en Ucrania, Como Afirma Rusia” (Spanish: “Nothing Prove That There Are Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine, As Russia Claims”)

  • “For his part, Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Politics and Government, recalls that in 1980 the Soviets spread the rumor that the US had “invented” the HIV virus and was being “used” as a biological weapon.”
  • “Since then, this type of disinformation campaign has been “quite aggressive” and has targeted not only the US, but also Georgia and Ukraine, stresses Koblentz, for whom these accusations are part “of a pattern” in propaganda Russian.”

Pandora Report: 3.25.2022

We’re back! We kick off this issue with a very special update from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists before getting into the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense’s recent meeting discussing the future of biodefense and biosecurity, more updates, and a number of great new publications and events to attend. We also included a brief update on why we were away last week, featuring plenty of photos of animals to brighten everyone’s day. A list of resources, updates, and faculty media features regarding Russia’s WMD disinformation is also at the end of this issue following our normal announcement section.

Has the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Gone Rogue?

According to the Onion, America’s Finest News Source, our friends at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are demanding a whopping $10 trillion in unmarked bills, otherwise they will set their Doomsday Clock to midnight, destroying the Earth. Dr. Rachel Bronson, President and CEO of the Bulletin, was definitely quoted saying, “Citizens of Earth, we have long served as stewards of your puny globe, safeguarding it from destruction with our Doomsday Clock, and today we demand you recognize our sacrifice with a simple monetary donation—say, $10 trillion?” in a message to all UN member states. She continued with, “Since time immemorial, we overseers at the Bulletin have been responsible for averting countless catastrophes with this all-powerful timekeeping instrument, and now we ask: Will you be the generation that allows humanity to be extinguished for a measly few trillion dollars? You have heard our demands. My finger is already on the minute hand. Now what shall you do?” The Onion also reported in 2016 that the Bulletin moved the clock to 60 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to global catastrophe, following Arby’s threats to create a three-cheese jalapeno beef’n bacon melt. The clock currently sits at 100 seconds to midnight because of factors like “negative trends in nuclear and biological weapons, climate change, and a variety of disruptive technologies—all exacerbated by a corrupted information ecosphere that undermines rational decision making,” so they really took the beef’n bacon melt to heart.

North Korea Conducts First ICBM Test Since 2017

Japan’s Defense Ministry announced yesterday that a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. North Korea has not conducted such a test since 2017, during the “fire and fury” days of the Trump administration. Japanese State Minister of Defense Makoto Oniki told the press the missile likely was in the air for approximately 71 minutes before landing about 150 km west of the Oshima Peninsula off Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost major island. The missile was later confirmed to be a Hwasong-17, which is thought to be 82 feet long and is estimated to be the largest road-mobile ballistic missile system in the world. North Korea revealed the Hwasong-17 at a military parade in October 2020, with this week’s test launch from an airport near Pyongyang being its first full-range test, according to ABC News. Kyodo News cited an unnamed source in the Japanese government who claimed this might be the closest a DPRK missile has ever come to the Japanese mainland. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, currently attending a meeting with G7 leaders in Brussels, strongly condemned the launch and stated he would seek to work with G7 members in formulating a response to the test that violates UN Security Council resolutions. While Kim Jong Un declared a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs in 2018, he appeared to rescind it last January in instructing officials to “rapidly examine the issue on resuming” such testing, according to NK News. A likely new ICBM base was discovered earlier this year in Hwapyong-gun, just 25 km from the Chinese border in the north of the country, further indicating the moratorium was likely terminated. DPRK state media released propaganda videos dramatizing the massive missile’s launch, one of which quickly drew attention online for its over-the-top style (at 1:08 in the linked video). Korean Central News Agency (the state agency of the DPRK) announced this test was guided by Kim Jong Un in pursuit of a “powerful tool for nuclear attack” aimed to “contain” the United States.

Biodefense Students Conduct Vector Surveillance in Kenya for Spring Break

Biodefense Program students Michelle Grundahl (MS Student) and Danyale C. Kellogg (PhD Student and Managing Editor of the Pandora Report) recently returned from a trip to the Mpala Research Centre outside of Nanyuki, Kenya. On this trip, they assisted researchers working on grants under the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) and the Remote Emerging Disease Intelligence Network (REDI-NET). Grundahl explained some details of the trip, saying “Our focus was to support Mason professor, Dr. Von Fricken. His work in Kenya involves surveillance of vector-borne diseases using a One Health approach. Starting on day one, we had the opportunity to collect water and soil samples, leeches, and ticks…The 10 students on this trip were intensely involved in setting up laboratory equipment and working through protocols to support the REDI-NET surveillance program.” The pair were joined by a number of Kenyan scientists who are also involved with the project through the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. Grundahl and Kellogg previously attended the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties course, offered by USAMRIID and USAMRICD, together in the fall of 2021.

Meeting of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense- The Biological Threat Expanse: Current and Future Challenges to National Biodefense

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense met on Tuesday to discuss the expanding landscape of current and future biological threats, the roles and responsibilities of the federal government in assessing and preparing for various biological threats, and biological weapons, bioterrorism, and biological arms races with the public. The Commission explains, “In its 2015 bipartisan report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, the Commission described biological threats to the Nation and made 33 recommendations to optimize U.S. efforts to prevent, deter, prepare for, detect, respond to, attribute, recover from, and mitigate intentionally introduced, accidentally released, and naturally occurring biological events. Seven years later, the U.S. experience with COVID-19 continues to validate our original findings and the need for an Apollo Program for Biodefense as biological threats to the Nation continue to expand and increase.”

Biodefense Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, also testified during this event, providing insight on the future of biodefense (time stamp- 3:47:22). On the risks posed by dual use research of concern and effective biosafety and biosecurity risk management, Koblentz concluded: “Whether or not the current pandemic was caused by a laboratory accident, it does not mean the next pandemic won’t be. Indeed, efforts to prevent and prepare for the next pandemic, ironically, include a range of activities that serve to increase the risk posed by an accident. Given that existing national and international systems to ensure that such research is conducted safely, securely, and responsibly are already inadequate, we need a new global architecture for biorisk management that can address the growing challenges we face in this domain.” The event recording is available here.

Omicron Subvariant BA.2 Updates

The BA.2 subvariant, AKA “stealth Omicron,” of COVID-19, which spreads up to 80% faster than the original Omicron variant, was found to have doubled in the US over the last two weeks, making it the dominant subvariant in the country right now, according the CNBC. Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News this week that BA.2, which was already dominant in some European countries, is 50% to 60% more transmissible than Omicron. The University of Minnesota’s CIDRAP noted that, “Currently BA.2 makes up roughly one third of COVID-19 cases in the United States but will likely overtake Omicron this spring,” in an article from March 21. “When you look at the cases, they do not appear to be any more severe and they do not appear to evade immune responses either from vaccines or prior infection,” Fauci said. The WHO announced too that BA.2 has taken over as the dominant strain circulating globally. The Food and Drug Administration also announced on March 21 that the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet on April 6 to discuss boosters in light of Pfizer and Moderna’s submissions for EUAs for fourth doses of their COVID-19 vaccines.

Armed Services Committees’ Leadership Announces Selections for National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology

The leadership of the of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced their appointments to the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology, which was established by Sec. 1091 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). The National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology will conduct a thorough review of how advances in emerging biotechnology and related technologies will shape current and future activities of the Department of Defense, provide an interim report to the President of the United States and the Armed Services Committees within one year, and submit a final unclassified report within two years to the President and the committees, including recommendations for action by Congress and the federal government. Twelve appointed members will make up the Commission.

The leaders of the Armed Services Committees named the following appointees: Senator Alex Padilla, the Honorable Dov S. Zakheim (Senior Advisor at CSIS and former Undersecretary of Defense), Congressman Ro Khanna, Paul Arcangeli (current Staff Director of the House Armed Services Committee, set to retire on April 1), Senator Todd Young, Dr. Alexander Titus (former  Assistant Director for Biotechnology within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering), Congresswoman Stephanie Bice, and Dr. Jason Kelly (co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks).

SARS-CoV-2: International Investigation Under the WHO or BWC

Drs. Mirko Himmel and Stefan Frey recently published their policy brief article in Frontiers in Public Health discussing current debates about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and the complexities of the political and biological elements of this debate. They offer recommendations for potential courses of action under the World Health Organization’s umbrella and in respect to the Biological Weapons Convention. They provide insight to how a number of complex issues might be resolved, particularly as China continues to delay the investigation into the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by withholding evidence.

UNIDIR- Potential Outcomes of the Ninth BWC Review Conference

The UN Institute for Disarmament Research’s recently released this report authored by Dr. Jez Littlewood. It aims to provide “a forthright assessment of the risks, benefits, and financial implications of four different potential Review Conference outcomes,” including very limited, status quo, forward-looking, and negotiation outcomes. It was released in preparation for the Ninth Biological Weapons Review Conference, currently scheduled for August of this year, where States parties will have the opportunity to advance biological disarmament and determine the future course of this treaty. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs recently released this primer on the BWC too, covering the history of negotiations of the treaty, its current state, and the importance of this treaty in the modern world.

“Insidious Insights: Implications of Viral Vector Engineering for Pathogen Enhancement”

Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and co-authors recently published this article in Gene Therapy. In it they discuss the dangers of optimizing viral vectors and their properties, despite the benefits this would provide to clinical gene therapy. They write, “High potential for misuse is associated with (1) the development of universal genetic elements for immune modulation, (2) specific insights on capsid engineering for antibody evasion applicable to viruses with pandemic potential, and (3) the development of computational methods to inform capsid engineering.” They ultimately recommend that “…computational vector engineering and the publication of associated code and data be limited to AAV [(adeno-associated viruses)] until a technical solution for preventing malicious access to viral engineering tools has been established.”

CSIS Global Health Policy Center Coronavirus Crisis Update

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center recently released a new episode of its podcast, Live From Munich: Dr. Richard Hatchett “Pandemic Preparedness Needs to Be Viewed as a Security Challenge”. Dr. Hatchett reminds listeners that having just had a pandemic does not prevent outbreak of another, and that pandemic preparedness needs to be “viewed as a security challenge, not as a health challenge, not as a development challenge”. He points to lessons in vaccine manufacturing and financing arrangements that incentivize disease surveillance that can better prepare us for the next pandemic. “Many of the high-income countries see the value from a geopolitical and security perspective in making these investments. The challenge for the long term, obviously, will be whether these facilities can be successful, sustainable, and be sustained.”

WHO- “Emerging Trends and Technologies: A Horizon Scan for Global Public Health”

The World Health Organization released this report earlier this month identifying 15 new and emerging technologies and scientific advances that could have major impacts on global health in the coming decades. To do so, it “presents the findings of a global horizon scan, conducted by a group of international experts, on emerging technologies and trends relevant to global public health conducted in 2020 and 2021.” Identified issues include vaccine distribution, apps for disease screening, addressing dis- and misinformation, and machine learning for antibiotic discovery. Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London recently co-authored an article addressing issues similar to the latter in Nature Machine Learning discussing the dangers of using AI in drug development.

Curious Coincidence: A Journey To the Origins of COVID-19

MIT Technology Review released a new episode of their podcast discussing challenges in determining the origins of the pandemic, this time focusing on what is known about the disease’s emergence in Wuhan in late 2019. Hosted by investigative reporter Antonio Regalado, Curious Coincidence dives into the mysterious origins of COVID-19 by examining China’s trade in wild animals, the labs doing sensitive research on dangerous pathogens, and questions of whether a lab accident may have touched off a global pandemic. Dr. Laura H. Kahn also recently discussed these issues in her piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Building Public Trust in Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (PHEPR) Science: A Workshop

From the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to wildfires and floods, public health emergencies are becoming increasingly common and complex. Public trust in public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) science is key to a quick and effective response. Join the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a two-day public workshop on March 29th and 30th to examine issues of building public knowledge of and trust in PHEPR science enterprise–the institutions, the research process, and the researchers and practitioners. Learn more and register here.

Inaugural Public Meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Seniors and Disasters and National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters

Join Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell along with Assistant Secretary for Aging and Acting Administrator for Community Living Alison Barkoff, Wednesday, March 30 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET for the inaugural meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Seniors and Disasters (NACSD) and National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters (NACIDD). Advanced registration for this meeting is required and can be accessed, along with additional meeting information, through the online event page. During this joint meeting, committee members will be sworn into service and begin a national discussion with federal subject matter experts on the challenges, opportunities, and priorities in meeting the unique health needs of older adult populations and people with disabilities during and after disasters and public health emergencies.

WHO Outreach and Engagement Consultant Job Opening Announcement

The purpose of this consultancy is to provide technical  input related to the projects of the emerging technologies, research prioritization and support (EPS) unit on dual-use research of concern as part of the “Reducing Biological Proliferation Risks Posed by Dual Use Research of Concern – (DURC)” and end to end research process optimization as part of the project “Strengthening WHO processes to accelerate timelines linking R&D with access”. The work will advance the implementation of the corresponding work plans of the two projects. Due to the COVID restrictions, the consultant will perform the work remotely from his/her home location. The consultant will need to be available during Geneva office hours (9h00-18h00 CET). Learn more and apply 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. Below are some highlights from the last couple of weeks:

Have You Been Lied to About Ukrainian Biolabs? 

Drs. Filippa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz recently hosed this even on Twitter Space discussing the ongoing bioweapon claims targeting labs in Ukraine. A recording of the event is available here and the transcript can be found here.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

DTRA has released this fact sheet discussing its support for Ukrainian labs and other key facts, including details of Russia’s illegal and dangerous takeover of multiple Ukrainian-owned labs. They have also released a YouTube video discussing the program and the beneficial work it has done and continues to do in disarmament and public health.

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

The PRIF Blog published this piece explaining and refuting Russia’s BW claims while also addressing concerns that these claims could be used as a pretext for a chemical weapons attack against Ukraine. Read more here.

Council on Strategic Risks

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell at CSR authored a piece, “The Deeply Dangerous Spread of Russian Disinformation on Biological Weapons,” discussing the implications of Russia’s debunked claims. Of the idea that Russia might use WMDs in this war, they quote Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, writing “If Russia does commit such atrocities, “There would be a very strong and united international response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, both of which are banned by the chemical and biological weapons conventions,” Andy Weber emphasized.”

Nuclear Threat Initiative

Hayley Severance and Jacob H. Heckles with NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs team explained some of the dangers of this Russian propaganda, focusing on the division and confusion it sows and the potential for this to later allow Russia to be viewed as justified in their invasion and war against Ukraine. Check out the piece, “Russian Propaganda Established a Dangerous, Permissive Environment,” here.

Congressional Research Service

CRS, the public policy research institute of the United States Congress, released a CRS Insight addressing members’ of Congress questions and concerns regarding these laboratories. It discusses the dangers combat operations pose to these facilities and potential courses of action Congress might consider taking as a result of these issues.

CBW Events Ukraine FAQ Page

CBW Events has created a one-stop-shop for all your questions on this issue here. CBW Events is “a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare and its prevention are developed.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz Was Recently Quoted in Numerous Outlets Discussing These Claims

Dr. Koblentz has been working overtime taking interviews to help combat this disinformation. Below are some of the quotes he provided within the last couple of weeks across various news outlets and debunking sites.

Daily Mail– “The 46 US Labs in Ukraine and the $200 Pentagon Program That Sparked a Propaganda War: How Ex-Soviet Facilities Adopted by America That House Pathogens Prompted Kremlin Bioweapons Claims in Putin’s Back Yard”

  • “‘These are all public health and veterinary labs,’ said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, according to Poynter. ‘None of them have been involved in biological warfare’.” 

The Washington Post– “A Legacy of ‘Secrecy and Deception’: Why Russia Clings to an Outlawed Chemical Arsenal”

  • “Novichok’s distinctive chemical formula differed from that of other known nerve agents, and because of this, Novichok was initially omitted from the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of banned substances. Russia could thus continue to tinker with the new weapon without technically violating their treaty obligations, said Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.”
  • ““Russia didn’t just inherit the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal; they also inherited the secrecy and deception that surrounded the program,” Koblentz said.”

Axios Science “Why Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use Are Hard to Investigate”

“What to watch: Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, says that, rather than use a chemical or biological weapon for an attack in Ukraine, there is a risk “Russia will invent or stage an event, claim it as an atrocity and use it domestically for escalating their commitment to the conflict.”

  • “Even if the U.S. and Ukrainians could expose this was staged or a hoax, on some level, the disinformation would be out there, and some would throw up their hands and say they don’t know and are going to sit it out,” he says.
  • Another concern for Koblentz is that unsubstantiated claims that bioweapons are being developed in Ukrainian labs that study and surveil pathogens like Crimean hemorrhagic fever could damage international cooperation on biosecurity and pathogen surveillance among labs around the world.

What’s next: The BCW is scheduled to meet in August to discuss how its mechanisms for resolving concerns about biological weapons compliance could be strengthened.

  • There had been signs over the past few years that parties may be willing to agree to measures that would facilitate verifying whether parties are complying. But “now there is no way it will be a constructive diplomatic event,” Koblentz says. “It’s been sacrificed for geopolitics.””

Bloomberg Quicktake– “Ukraine: Is Russia Planning to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

iNews– “How Russia’s Fake Claims About Ukraine Bioweapons Spread From Telegram Anti-Vaxxers to Fox News”

  • ““It goes back to the 1980s, when the KGB started a rumour that the United States occurred the HIV virus,” said Dr Greg Koblentz, Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.”

CNN What Matters– “Russia and Chemical Weapons: What You Need to Know”

  • Dr. Koblentz featured heavily in this article through a long interview discussing many facets of Russian CBW, including the difference between BW and CW, Russia’s obligations under international law, the potential for Russia to use such weapons against Ukraine, and more

Open– “No! Quelli in Ucraina Non Sono Laboratori Militari Per La Guerra Biologica” (Italian: “No! The Labs in Ukraine Are Not Biowarfare Labs”)

  • “Associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government , Gregory Koblentz, explains to Open why the Russian narrative of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine could be the first phase of a maneuver aimed at attributing to the A completely invented biological threat was born.”
  • “These laboratories are used to diagnose and conduct research on endemic diseases in Ukraine – explains Koblentz -, they are not designed or intended for use to conduct research on biological weapons. The concern is not whether Russia will take them over and use them to develop biological weapons. Moscow already has three large military microbiology facilities which it uses to conduct research and development on biological weapons. Instead, the concern is that Russia is leaking “evidence” fabricated in those labs and claiming to have uncovered a secret US-Ukraine program to develop biological weapons. Of course, such a statement would be nonsense.”
  • “The only way these laboratories could pose a danger would be if they were bombed, looted or occupied and unsuspecting individuals accidentally became infected with a leftover pathogen sample – continues the expert -, which was on site but no longer properly stored. . The WHO has told Ukraine to destroy the samples of high-risk pathogens in their laboratories for this reason ”.
  • “The United States and Ukraine have been transparent about the type of public health research conducted in these laboratories – concludes Koblentz -, as you can see on the US embassy website . The Defense Department has just released a new fact sheet explaining its assistance to Ukraine in this area. The BTRP strengthens biological health and safety in laboratories around the world and develops the capacity of these laboratories to diagnose and study diseases that pose a threat to public health in those countries. Since the onset of COVID-19, the program has also helped these countries respond to the pandemic by providing diagnostic kits, etc. “

EFE Verifica– “Nada Prueba Que Haya Laboratorios de Armas Biológicas en Ucrania, Como Afirma Rusia” (Spanish: “Nothing Prove That There Are Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine, As Russia Claims”)

  • “For his part, Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Politics and Government, recalls that in 1980 the Soviets spread the rumor that the US had “invented” the HIV virus and was being “used” as a biological weapon.”
  • “Since then, this type of disinformation campaign has been “quite aggressive” and has targeted not only the US, but also Georgia and Ukraine, stresses Koblentz, for whom these accusations are part “of a pattern” in propaganda Russian.”

Pandora Report: 3.11.2022

Our major focus this week is on Russia’s continued claims that the US is supporting WMD development in Ukraine, ranging from claims lodged at DTRA CTR labs to assertions the US is helping the Ukrainians make a dirty bomb and chemical weapons. Multiple organs of the US government have indicated the Kremlin may use chemical or biological weapons or create a false flag operation to justify their claims about CTR and their invasion of Ukraine. We also discuss the ODNI’s release of the Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment, which includes a dedicated health security section this year. We have also included a number of fascinating new publications, including reports on the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in North Korea, China’s global health leadership ambitions, and a report discussing balancing protecting patients from infections and pandemic response in a hospital setting. Finally, we discuss updates on the pandemic as it remains far from over, death counts continue to soar in places like Hong Kong, and it presents an issue for Ukrainians fleeing to other countries.

Admin note: There will be no Pandora Report next week (3/18). The weekly report will resume on 3/25.

Russia Continues Its WMD Disinformation With Help As Concerns Grow About False Flag Operations

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Ministry of Defense (MOD) continued their barrage of claims alleging the US is helping the Ukrainians make WMDs, this time asserting the Russian military found evidence the Ukrainians staged an emergency clean-up to eradicate “…traces of the military-biological programme, in Ukraine, financed by the [US Department of Defense].” Major General Igor Konashenkov delivered this latest claim, which was quickly parroted by state media. He claimed pathogens such as the causative agents of plague, anthrax, and cholera were being made into bioweapons in US-funded laboratories throughout Ukraine. The MFA also claimed on March 6 that the Security Service of Ukraine and Azov Battalion “mined a reactor at an experimental nuclear facility at the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology” in order to “accuse Russia of creating an ecological catastrophe.” The Atlantic Council noted that this claim was based on a supposed alert from the Russian MOD and was supplemented by quotes from the state-owned outlet, Sputnik.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Tweet further alleging DTRA CTR-sponsored labs are bioweapons development facilities.

The Sino-Russian Relationship Isn’t Complicated Enough To Keep China Away From These Conspiracy Theories Apparently

Various Chinese outlets have already been sharing Russia’s narrative, however the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has more formally begun doing so as well. PRC MFA spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, made several comments at a press briefing this week accusing the US of violating the BWC at its labs in Ukraine. He accused the US of preventing multilateral verifications of these facilities from taking place before saying, “What is the real intention of the United States? What exactly has it done? These have always been the source of misgivings for the international community.” A description of DTRA’s CTR program’s accomplishments in its first 25 years is available here.

This is also not China’s first time making such claims. Throughout and following the Korean War, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and China claimed the United States used biological weapons on large scale in both China and North Korea. Though Soviet Central Committee documents indicating these claims were known to be false were declassified in 1998, both North Korea and China have continued to make these claims over the decades. As we previously covered, China has a number of nonsense claims they have made recently too, including assertions that the US engineered COVID-19 at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, that the US military introduced SARS-CoV-2 to Wuhan at the World Military Games in 2019, and even that the Omicron variant entered the country on a piece of mail from Canada.

This comes at a time when many are questioning the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship, as Xi Jinping tries to balance supporting Putin while shielding his country from the economic hardship and isolation the world has levied on Russia. It also remains unclear how much Chinese officials actually knew about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, though it is thought they had at least some level of advance knowledge and asked Putin to wait until after the Beijing Olympics. The two countries issued a joint statement last month, titled “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development”. It included a section on the BWC and claims the US is not fulfilling its obligations under the treaty, stating “The sides emphasize that domestic and foreign bioweapons activities by the United States and its allies raise serious concerns and questions for the international community regarding their compliance with the BWC.” It later stated, “The sides call on the U.S. and its allies to act in an open, transparent, and responsible manner by properly reporting on their military biological activities conducted overseas and on their national territory, and by supporting the resumption of negotiations on a legally binding BWC Protocol with an effective verification mechanism.”

Russian Outlets’ Lazy Attempts at Disinfo Somehow Still Have the Desired Effect

This all somehow managed to grow worse late this week as the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Over the course of the hearing, she stated “Ukraine has biological research facilities which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops…Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of. So we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.” She later stated that, should there be any of use of CBW in Ukraine, the Russians would be behind it. Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik were quick to re-share the unedited clip, which their followers concluded meant Nuland was confirming the US has biological weapons facilities in Ukraine. This was echoed by the likes of American conservative commentators Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens on their respective platforms. RT did not have to do any work to splice the clips of Nuland, create confusion about the context, or anything to get this clip spread around, viewed millions of times, and touted as proof the US was lying about having BW facilities in Ukraine. They simply played an accurate statement from the undersecretary and let their audiences do the rest. This has been a rapid progression from the situation a couple weeks ago, with Foreign Policy’s Justin Ling writing, “In less than two weeks, a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs has gone from a fringe QAnon Twitter account to becoming a major rallying cry for both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the U.S. far-right.”

In case it somehow is not clear enough already- the terms “biological research facilities” and “biolabs” do not mean the same thing as “biological weapons facilities”. A biological research facility just describes an institution or building where research is being conducted in some area of biology. Different types of hospital research labs, labs at zoos, numerous university labs, and all sorts of institutions can accurately be described as “biological research facilities”. As a result of the threat Russian forces pose to these facilities in Ukraine, the WHO advised Ukraine on Thursday to destroy high-threat pathogens from their public health labs to prevent “any potential spills” that could cause disease in the population.

Birds of Mass Destruction?

On Thursday, the Russian MOD released a video discussing the supposed results of their report about documents from “military biological activities of the USA in Ukraine”. The MOD included screenshots of various Power Point slides and materials from DTRA throughout the presentation, including an unclassified slide discussing the risk of emerging infections in insectivorous bats in Ukraine and Georgia and the need for interagency efforts to stem the threat to public health this poses. The video then makes a number of wild claims that make even some of the most ardent conspiracy theorists look comparatively poised and logically sound. Such claims include that the US wants to release migrating birds carrying highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza. Another claim is that a Project R-781 is focused on US efforts to use bats as carriers for biological weapons. This is simply non-sensical. The US does not conduct bioweapons R&D, it certainly would not need to do so in Ukraine if it wanted to, and releasing birds, bats, and insects carrying highly infectious diseases would likely harm the US as well as any intended target. It is highly unlikely the Russians believe any of this to be true and they are just using this as an attempt to keep up the pressure in their disinformation firehose and create frustrations and tensions where possible.

A Note On Biosafety Levels

Some of those re-sharing these posts from Russian outlets have also focused their attention on the biosafety levels (BSL) of the CTR labs in Ukraine, claiming they must be making bioweapons because they have certain BSL designations. Those making these claims seem to either focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 designation, somehow concluding this means the Ukrainian labs must also be at this level and, by extension, they are making bioweapons. Others focus on the term “high containment lab”, either assuming or purposefully deceitfully claiming that term means the labs are BSL-4 labs by definition. First, Ukraine does not have a BSL-4 facility. Second, the term “high containment lab” refers to both BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities. Third, many of these claims are based on an out-of-context clip of a chapter of a National Academies Press publication– “Biosecurity Challenges of the Global Expansion of High-Containment Biological Laboratories: Summary of a Workshop”. This specific chapter discusses local resources and regulations for high containment labs in Ukraine in which the authors discuss the differences in how Ukrainian labs are rated (lab designation in Ukraine is inverted, so 1 is the highest risk and 4 is the lowest) and why this makes it especially important to consider what specific permits Ukrainian labs have that allow them to handle certain pathogens. Furthermore, the biosafety level of a lab is not an indicator of what that facility is doing. Rather, BSLs are sets of biocontainment precautions required to work with biological agents in laboratories. They are sometimes called pathogen, protection, or containment levels, the latter of which uses the designations P1-P4 instead.

For context, BSL-4 is the highest level of precautions and is used for work with agents that can easily be transmitted as aerosols in the lab, cause severe to fatal disease in humans, and for which there are no available vaccines or treatments. Some BSL-4 agents include Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, and Nipah viruses. The other levels can vary in terms of which pathogens are handled in them depending on the conditions and the work being conducted, such as if there were a high chance an agent would become aerosolized while being worked with, which would necessitate a higher BSL. Common BSL-3 agents include SARS classic, SARS-CoV-2, MERS-CoV, Rift Valley Fever virus, and even Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. Some examples of potential BSL-2 agents include pathogenic strains of E. coli, Hepatitits A, B, and C viruses, HIV, and even prions, which transmit diseases like Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (the human version of Mad Cow Disease). Things like non-pathogenic strains of E. coli and different types of Staphylococcus are frequently handled in BSL-1, including in labs at secondary education institutions.

While abiding by federal law and research guidelines, different institutions in the US place different agents at different BSL levels based on their facility’s capabilities, what they plan to do with an agent, and what risks may come of such work. You can see Stanford University’s list and guidelines here, for example. The Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories, the document that helps labs make protocol-driven risk assessments and determine what BSL they should work in is also freely available online

Furthermore, a BSL-4 designation does not imply the lab is government-run, and certainly does not mean it is necessarily doing offensive research. Using the US as an example, of the 13 BSL-4 labs in the US, three are housed at universities – Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, Georgia State University’s High Containment Core, and the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory. Kansas State University also has its BSL-4 National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction. Fewer than 1/5 of BSL-4 facilities globally are actually defense laboratories and two are even privately-owned, according to Global Bio Labs. USA Today also found a few years ago that there are around 200 BSL-3 labs (at least) in the US, meaning many Americans live near one. Meanwhile, the labs in Ukraine are below BSL-4 and they are well-established centers providing important public health research and services. In fact, the closest BSL-4s to Ukraine are the Republican Research and Practical Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Minsk, Belarus and two facilities in Hungary. Furthermore, the US has been open from the beginning about the purpose and scope of the Lugar-Nunn Cooperative Threat Reduction program as well. And while just one-quarter of countries with BSL-4 labs score well on best practice indicators for biosafety and biosecurity, the Lugar-Nunn program has helped ensure partner countries do meet these requirements consistently, limiting the chances of accidents.

Is This All a Set Up For a False Flag Operation? The US Government Weighs In

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented on this ongoing issue on Twitter earlier in the week, stating, “We took note of Russia’s false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories.” She re-iterated that this is something Russia and China have done repeatedly, adding that the US is in full-compliance with its obligations under the BWC and CWC. She also stated, “It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny.” She concluded with a warning that Russia might look to use chemical or biological weapons to create a false flag operation, writing, “Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s tweets concerning Russian allegations the US is supporting chemical and biological weapons development in Ukraine.

Finally, the US State Department also released an official statement on the Kremlin’s claims. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price’s delivered the following statement:

The Kremlin is intentionally spreading outright lies that the United States and Ukraine are conducting chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine.  We have also seen PRC officials echo these conspiracy theories.  This Russian disinformation is total nonsense and not the first time Russia has invented such false claims against another country.  Also, these claims have been debunked conclusively and repeatedly over many years.

As we have said all along, Russia is inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine. The United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine, it is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, and it does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere. It is Russia that has active chemical and biological weapons programs and is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention.

Finally, Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very crimes that Russia itself is perpetrating. These tactics are an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attacks on Ukraine. We fully expect Russia to continue to double down on these sorts of claims with further unfounded allegations.

While it remains unclear if the Russians are interested in using CBW or trying to stage a false flag operation, there are still inherent dangers to these types of weapons that dissuade actors from their use, though some still certainly do use these kinds of weapons. Furthermore, as Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Jez Littlewood pointed out in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this week, this could also end up damaging the Biological Weapons Convention, set for its five-year review later this year. They also rightfully point out that the US identified a number of countries as BW threats, including the DPRK, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Iraq, the latter of which is arguably the most infamous intelligence failure of the US this century. Few could forget the images of Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up a model vial of anthrax spores during a meeting of the UNSC on Iraq’s alleged WMD program in 2003. While this assessment was not just based on US intelligence alone, this was later something he described as a “blot” on his career, stating “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.” While the US has not been perfect, the labs under DTRA’s CTR program have demonstrated time and time again that they are legitimately conducting peaceful research and that they provide benefits to the public health of the region.

Other Helpful Resources On This Topic:

  • EUvsDisinfo released this week’s Disinfo Review, Weapons of Mass Delusion covering these efforts, finding that a quarter of Russia’s disinformation tropes pertain to the lie that the US has secret labs encircling the country.
  • Here is the page on the Biological Threat Reduction Program on the US Embassy in Ukraine’s website. Many conspiracy theorists, right-wing American pundits, and Russian outlets claim this page was taken down, yet it is still live and has all the PDFs discussing the diagnostic labs in Lviv, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipro, and Vinnytsia that some insist are gone from the site.
  • Here is PolitiFact’s fact check of the first few claims in this new series lodged by Russia.

US Surgeon General Releases RFI on COVID-19 Disinformation

On a related note, to help combat the effects of disinformation in the United States, the US Surgeon General, VADM Vivek Murthy (USPHS), has issued a formal request for information to major tech companies, asking them to send data and information on the prevalence of COVID-19 mis-/disinformation on their platforms. This is part of the Biden administration’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and companies will have until May 2 to comply with the RFI. Dr. Murthy also has asked healthcare professionals to submit their testimonies about how COVID-19 mis- and disinformation have impacted their patients and communities. This comes as a physician group, No License for Disinformation, and their calls for state medical board to take disciplinary action against physicians who deliberately spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic gain more traction.

WHO Issues Situation Report on the Russo-Ukrainian War

As the news has been filled with reports of Russian attacks on civilians and healthcare institutions, including the bombing of a maternity ward and children’s hospital in Mariupol, the WHO has released its first situation report on Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion. The report indicates over 18 million of Ukraine’s population have been affected, including 1.2 million refugees, 160,000 internally displaced person, at least 553 civilian injuries, and 249 civilian deaths. It notes that conflict related trauma and injuries are currently exacerbated by a lack of access to healthcare facilities as well as a lack of medicine and supplies. Importantly, it also explains there is an excess of morbidity and death from common illnesses such as noncommunicable diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.) and acute maternal, newborn, and child illnesses. The spread of infectious diseases is on the rise in Ukraine as well, including COVID-19, measles, polio, TB, HIV and diarrheal diseases. This is due to widespread destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure, inadequate vaccination coverage, lack of access to medicines and medical care, safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene as well as population movements and crowding. Ukraine faced a polio outbreak and was just pulling out of weeks of record high COVID-19 case counts when Russia invaded on 24 February. Ukraine has a relatively low vaccination rate and the government was struggling with vaccine hesitancy prior to the invasion. The WHO is continuing to monitor the situation and trying to help the Ukrainian Ministry of Health in coordinating the health response.

World Surpasses 6 Million COVID-19 Deaths As the Pandemic Drags On

The pandemic is very much not over, with the world surpassing 6.03 million official COVID-19 deaths Thursday. Worse yet, these are only confirmed deaths, with the true count likely being much higher. This horror is inescapable in places like Hong Kong right now, where the death count is continuing to soar as officials race to test all 7.5 million Hong Kongers three times this month to try and maintain the mainland’s zero-COVID strategy. Death rates also remain high in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and other Eastern European countries, which does not bode well with over 1 million Ukrainian refugees flooding in to these places. Despite this, a 136-page report written by two dozen experts, many of whom advised President Biden, was released this week entitled, “Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap to Living with Covid.” This report argues the US pandemic response should shift from being focused only on COVID-19 to focusing on a system where prevention, mitigation, and treatment efforts are focused on a number of respiratory illnesses, including influenza and COVID-19. They do stress this “next normal” will not be like 2019, but that this is how to best deal with pandemic fatigue and more diverse health threats as case counts in the US decline.

US Intelligence Community Releases Annual Threat Assessment

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has released its unclassified 2022 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (IC). This year’s assessment includes an entire section dedicated to health security, covering infectious diseases and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, biological weapons, and anomalous health incidents (AHIs). Key assessments include that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue to strain health systems, possibly aiding the spread of other diseases; that countries around the world remain vulnerable to the emergence of a new novel pathogen that could cause a worse pandemic; that economic fallout from the pandemic will continue to challenge governments and hinder human development, particularly in the developing world; and that shortcomings in pandemic response may inspire adversaries to consider developing or using biological weapons.

The brief sub-section on biological weapons assesses, “Global shortcomings in preparedness for the pandemic and questions surrounding the origins of the COVID-19
virus and biosecurity may inspire some adversaries to consider options related to biological weapons developments.” It states that advances in dual-use technology like bioinformatics, synthetic biology, and genomic editing, could help enable the development of new bioweapons that are able to complicate detection, attribution, and treatment. It also addresses ongoing efforts by China, Iran, and Russia to tout their individual and collaborative efforts to improve biosecurity while also making false claims about US laboratories pertaining to the origin of COVID-19, biosafety breaches, vaccines, and bioweapons. It concludes that this messaging will likely be amplified ahead of the Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which is held every five years and is schedule to convene in mid-2022.

The sub-section on AHIs states that, “IC agencies assess with varying levels of confidence that most reported health incidents can be explained by medical conditions, or environmental or technical factors and that it is unlikely that a foreign actor—including Russia—is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign involving hundreds of incidents without detection.” This is in reference to reports of Havana Syndrome, a condition first reported in 2016 by US and Canadian diplomats serving in Cuba with symptoms including ringing in the ears, vertigo and nausea, and cognitive difficulties. There are a number of speculations about what caused this, including theories that the Russians are using electromagnetic energy and ultrasound to target US and Canadian personnel.

This section of the threat assessment also summarizes some of the findings of 2021’s Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins, indicating that four IC elements assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 was a result of zoonotic spillover while one assesses with moderate confidence that it was the result of a laboratory-associated incident. The same assessment also addressed concerns the virus was a bioweapons or genetically engineered, writing “We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.”

Three reports that Nature announced in February 2022 discussing SARS-CoV-2 origins have caused quite a stir recently as well. Two of the reports traced the original outbreak of COVID-19 back to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which sold live animals, in Wuhan, Hubei Province. A third report suggests that SARS-CoV-2 did spill over from animals- potentially those at the Huanan Market- to humans at least twice in November and December 2019. These reports include genetic analyses of samples collected from the market and infected people in December 2019 and January 2020 in addition to geolocation analyses connecting many of the samples to a specific portion of the market where live animals were sold. Important to note, however, is that these are still preprints and have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals, though some argue they do add more weight to the idea that the pandemic started at the Huanan Market despite not being definitive.

GAO’s Chris P. Currie Testifies Before Senate Committee on Opportunities to Improve National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation

The Director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, Chris Currie, testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Opportunities to Address National Strategy and Programmatic Challenges pertaining to biodefense. His testimony addressed GAO studies in this area from December 2009 through August 2021, focused on efforts to implement the National Biodefense Strategy and strengthen biodefense preparedness, as well as ongoing challenges to DHS’s biosurveillance and biodetection efforts. Currie stated that GAO determined the US lacks “a set of defined capabilities for responding to nationally significant biological incidents, an interagency process for assessing and communicating exercise priorities, an interagency process for agencies to consistently report on the
capabilities exercised in after-action reviews, and routine monitoring at the interagency level of exercises and real-world incidents in order to evaluate lessons learned across the government, identify patterns and possible root causes for systemic challenges, and make recommendations to address these challenges.” He also discussed pathways to changing the National Biosurveillance Integration Center’s charge, DHS’s struggles to justify updating detection systems rendering it over-focused on aerosolized attacks, and how DHS can mitigate risk in Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21) acquisition. Read his statement and the GAO recommendations here.

Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit Sees CEPI Secure $1.5 Billion in Funding

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) secured $1.535 billion in funding over the course of the UK’s Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit this week. This is in support of CEPI’s goal of being able to produce a new vaccine for newly detected COVID-19 variants within 100 days of detection. This 100 day goal relies on accelerating global genomic surveillance to quickly identify new pandemic threats. The UK pledged $211 million, Indonesia (current G20 President) gave $5 million, and the US pledged $150 million, among other donations from other top donors including the governments of Japan, Norway, Germany, and Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Wellcome. This did not fully cover CEPI’s goal of $3.5 billion over the next five years, though it certainly puts them well on their way. According to CEPI’s statement, “CEPI’s plan will reduce the risk posed by epidemics and pandemics by developing vaccines for known disease threats (such as Lassa fever, MERS and Nipah virus), and build on the scientific advances made during COVID-19 to prepare in advance for ‘Disease X’- the threat of an unknown pathogen with pandemic potential.” Read USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s statement on the funding and push to deploy new vaccines for new COVID-19 variants within 100 days of detection here.

RUSI Occasional Paper- Remote Assessment of North Korea’s Chemical Weapons, Feasible or Not?

The Royal United Services Institute has released a new report, “Remote Assessment of North Korea’s Chemical Weapons, Feasible or Not?” discussing how open source research and remote sensing technologies might be used to assess North Korea’s CW capability. To do this, the authors use a case study approach focusing on the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in South Pyongan Province. Their research process included gathering data and information to build a case study that could be used to test this approach, analysis and assessment of the chemical activities and determination of whether those activities have relevance for CW production, and analysis of the overlap between the signatures of chemical activity and CW specifics at the Namhung Complex, followed by examination of how remote sensing might be able to support further assessment of CW capability. They conclude that the Namhung Complex is not a site used purely for CW production, but that it does likely retain activities relevant for CW. They determine for an open-source approach to be of the most value, the method would have to be replicated across the DPRK’s chemical industry. Furthermore, they state analyses should consider CW production as a network instead of focusing too much on individual sites. They conclude that, “…while remote sensing tools will not be a silver bullet in assessing the status, scope and scale of North Korea’s CW programme, they can be used to refine hypotheses about North Korea’s CW capability.”

APIC Releases New Recommendations for Balancing Patient Safety and Pandemic Response

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) has released its new call to action, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Recommendations for Balancing Patient Safety and Pandemic Response, a Call to Action on Improving our National Strategy for Pandemic Preparedness and Patient Safety”. It outlines a number of recommendations and steps to implement them including: developing next-generation universal personal protective equipment; normalizing the use of masks by the general public during times of increased infectious disease threats; addressing supply chain failures, including personnel with IPC expertise on healthcare system incident command and emergency response teams; putting properly trained personnel in long-term care, nursing homes, and other high-risk settings; building and implementing infection prevention and control surge capacity; increasing capacity for testing and contact tracing; ensuring rapid data sharing and interoperability around infection surveillance data; establishing strategies and actions to build disease confidence; and funding pandemic preparedness workforce capacity training.

Biodefense PhD program alumna and current Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School, Dr. Saskia Popescu, co-authored a portion of this report, “Managing Communications During a Pandemic”.

CFR- The COVID-19 Pandemic and China’s Global Health Leadership

Dr. Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, has released this new CFR report discussing China’s attempts to gain prominence in global health leadership and opportunities for the United States to re-assert itself in this area. In it he discusses China’s earlier attempts to turn its comparative success in managing COVID-19 into taking center stage in global leadership. However, he explains that its initial mishandling of the outbreak undermined the country’s international reputation, harming its ability to project soft power and strengthen its international image. Recent developments with highly transmissible variants have also challenged China’s draconian outbreak response measures and called into questions the efficacy of Chinese vaccines. He cautions the country is also heading towards a wider immunity gap between its population and the rest of the world, writing “The zero-COVID strategy will be extremely costly and highly dangerous: a small omicron outbreak in China could quickly develop into multiple larger outbreaks across the country, sending shock waves through society and the economy and intensifying the disruption of global supply chains and inflation pressures worldwide.” He concludes with a number of recommendations for the Biden administration, urging that the US should cooperate with Beijing in this area when it is helpful (such as in disease surveillance, response capacity-building, and vaccine distribution) while also scaling up US health diplomacy efforts and forming a bloc with allies to increase the WHO’s authority. This report is available here from CFR.

Insidious Insights: Implications of Viral Vector Engineering for Pathogen Enhancement

Biodefense Graduate Program Director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, has co-authored this new article in Gene Therapy. In it, the authors discuss how viral vector engineering offers enormous benefits, but brings a dual use risk pertaining to pathogen enhancement. They explain that optimizing viral vectors and their properties will prove important for improving the effectiveness and safety of clinical gene therapy, but there are particular risks in which reliable and generalizable methods of immune evasion could increase viral fitness, potentially causing a new pandemic. They write, “High potential for misuse is associated with (1) the development of universal genetic elements for immune modulation, (2) specific insights on capsid engineering for antibody evasion applicable to viruses with pandemic potential, and (3) the development of computational methods to inform capsid engineering.” They explain a number of ways this could be mitigated, including prioritizing non-viral delivery systems, before concluding with recommendations about how this data should be published until a technical solution for preventing malicious access to these viral engineering tools is established.  

Commemoration of the 34th Anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Attack on Halabja

March 16th, 2022 marks the 34th anniversary of the chemical attack on Halabjah. On this occasion, this event aims at commemorating all victims of chemical weapons and raising awareness about chemical weapons and chemical weapons disarmament. It is organized by Rotary Peace Fellows Alumni Association and World Beyond War. It is open to all interested individuals. Speakers are prominent activists, including Dr. Paul Walker (Coordinator of the CWC), who have worked in CW-related fields for years. Their presentations will be followed by Q&A and one minute of silence. This virtual event is on March 12 at 4:00 pm BMT. Register here.

Building Public Trust in Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (PHEPR) Science: A Workshop

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is hosting a two-day public workshop on March 29th and 30th to examine issues of building public knowledge of and trust in the public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) science enterprise. Workshop discussants and participants will specifically:

  • Examine why the topic of public trust (and trustworthiness, credibility, confidence in, among others) is important in PHEPR science and develop a shared understanding of its importance and its relationship to other factors that contribute to social cohesion in public health emergencies.
  • Explore key elements of PHEPR science communication and generate actionable communications strategies based on recent experiences.
  • Generate actionable strategies and approaches for building/maintaining trust, communicating PHEPR science and the scientific process in the face of uncertainty and in response to the recent decline in perceived credibility of federal, state, and local agencies.
  • Examine the ways in which diverse demographic groups experience PHEPR science differently and generate strategies and approaches for building trust in PHEPR science and the scientific process that is tailored to these varied experiences.

Find more information and register here.

Open Source Technology Tools For United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 Implementation

The Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) is hosting the webinar “Open Source Technology Tools for United Nations Security Council 1540 Implementation,” sponsored by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) through voluntary contributions received from the Government of the Republic of Korea. The event will feature an expert panel discussion and demonstration of open source tools and resources available to all UN Member States that can help strategic trade stakeholders gather information, assess risks, make policy and authorization decisions, and take effective enforcement measures. Before the event, registered participants will receive links to the resources and publications that will be discussed by the event panelists. The event’s focus is on tools that are publicly accessible. The objective of the webinar is to compile use cases for these tools as well as demonstrate to Member States and their stakeholders the availability, accessibility, and value of open source instruments for strengthening UNSCR 1540. This event will be useful for both public and private sector decision-makers who play a role in  UNSCR 1540 implementation measures.

Panelists include Jason Arterburn (Program Director for State-Sponsored Threats at C4ADS), Dr. Richard T. Cupitt (Senior Fellow and Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program at the Henry L. Stimson Center), and Peter Heine (Senior Advisor in Global Security Technology and Policy at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory). This event will occur March 23 at 10:00 AM EST. RSVP here.

From ASPR: Comments Requested on 2023-2026 National Health Security Strategy

Through a Federal Register Notice (FRN) published by ASPR on February 14, 2022, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is soliciting public comments to provide information regarding threats and challenges to national health security, and promising practices to address the same. The information provided will be used to inform the development of the 2023-2026 National Health Security Strategy (NHSS). The NHSS is a four-year strategy that establishes a strategic approach to strengthening the country’s ability to prevent, detect, assess, prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from disasters and emergencies. The upcoming iteration of the NHSS (2023-2026) presents a unique opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and focus the nation’s priorities to address evolving public health challenges and be better prepared for future health security threats. For more information, please view the full FRN posted to the Federal Register. Comments will be accepted March 25, 2022, electronically to nhss@hhs.gov with “2023-2026 NHSS Comments” in the subject line. Comments may be placed in the body of the email or in an attachment to the email using a standard document format.

Pandora Report 12.4.2015

This week, Washington, DC hosted the Summit on Human Gene Editing, where the ethical and legal implications of gene editing technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9, were heavily discussed. In this week’s report, Greg Mercer works his magic, revealing the internet and social media trends following the shootdown of a Russian SU-24 on November 24th. We’re also reporting updates in the Zika virus and dengue fever outbreaks as well as the Harvard-LSHTM Panel Report on Global Response to Ebola. France is currently experiencing an increase of highly pathogenic avian influenza cases while a Black Angus beef cow in Alberta was discovered to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Fun history fact Friday – on December 3, 1967, the first human heart transplant was performed in Cape Town, South Africa and on December 4, 1945, the Senate approved US participation in the UN. Before we start our weekly roundup, make sure to mark your calendars to attend GMU’s seminar on Ebola surveillance and laboratory response this Monday, December 7th from 4:30-6pm at our Fairfax campus (details below!).

Zika Virus Outbreak – Updates
The growing outbreak of Zika virus has now seen locally acquired cases reach ten countries, causing the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to issue an alert, “urging countries in the region to be on the lookout for the disease and to watch for unusual patterns in newborn.” Brazil has been hit hard with a rise from 739 on November 27th, to 1,248 cases reported on November 30th. Six of the ten countries saw cases occur in November, hinting that the outbreak could just be starting. The growing concerns regarding the outbreak are also related to the newest evidence linking microcephaly and maternal cases. Zika virus genome was found in the amniotic fluid of two pregnant women and fetal diagnosis of microcephaly was performed via ultrasound. Even more so, French Polynesian health officials reported an unusual spike in nervous system malformations in babies that were born during a Zika virus outbreak in the region from 2014 to 2015. The concern regarding neurological conditions raises red flags as Brazilian health officials are reporting neurological complications, like that of Guillain-Barre syndrome, in Zika virus patients. The WHO reported 739 Brazilian microcephaly cases in newborns and while there is only ecological evidence linking the virus and microcephaly, investigations are ongoing. The outbreak first started in February 2014, on Easter Island (Chile) and has seen been identified in Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay, Panama (confirmed cases as of December 4, 2015), Suriname, and Venezuela. Spread by Aedes mosquitoes, this vector-borne organism has similar symptoms to dengue fever and illness tends to last between four and seven days.

Event: Ebola Surveillance & Laboratory Response – Lessons for Global Health SecurityScreen Shot 2015-12-03 at 9.34.57 AM
Time/Location: Monday, December 7, 2015 from 4:30pm-6pm in Robinson A-203 at George Mason University.
As the recently released Harvard-London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Independent panel on the Global Response to Ebola indicates, the West African Ebola epidemic highlighted
many gaps in national and international health and response systems that are critical for protecting global health security.  Join leaders and experts who helped to lead the U.S. response for Ebola to discuss the international response to the epidemic, the importance of robust biosurveillance systems, and how the experience with Ebola influences our approach to Global Health Security. Speakers:

  • Dr. Matthew Lim, Senior Policy Advisor for Global Health Security, HHS, fmr Civil-Military Liaison Officer to WHO
  • May Chu, Ph.D. fmr Assistant Director for Public Health, Office of Science Technology and Policy, White House; Senior Science Advisor, CDC
  • Jeanette Coffin, Manager U.S. mobile laboratory deployment, MRIGlobal

It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3
GMU’s Greg Mercer breaks down the November 24th Turkish shootdown of a Russian SU-24. Greg reviews the media attention following the event and the “immediate buzz about declarations of war, what exactly NATO owes Turkey vis-à-vis Russia, and the possibility of military confrontation between Russia and the West.” Through his use of google trends and Twitter, Greg shows just how much hype and concern the notion of WWIII got during this time. Take a look at his recap and debunking of the WWIII buzz and how quickly it caught like wild fire.

Reporting from the Panel on the Final Report of the Harvard-LSHTM Independent Review of the Global Response to Ebola
If you missed the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Global Health Policy Center’s Launch of the final report of the Harvard-LSHTM Independent Panel on the Global Response to Ebola, don’t worry! I was fortunate to attend and a great deal of the report (we reported on last week) heavily emphasized “on the ground” capacity. Dr. Peter Piot, Director and Handa Professor of Global Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), joined via video link and started by saying that this would not be a WHO-bashing event. As one of the original researchers on Ebola during its 1976 discovery, he mentioned that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a great example of local capacity in their success of ridding themselves of the disease within a few months of the outbreak starting. Dr. Piot heavily emphasized the work of several countries and how the WHO brought together multiple ethicists to review research during such a terrible outbreak. Lastly, Dr. Piot noted that “we risk focussing too much on global and not enough on local” in our future efforts. Dr. Suerie Moon, Research Director and Co-Chair of the Forum on Global Governance for Health at Harvard Global Health Institute, then spoke on the “weak coordination of global response” and how it severely aided the spread of Ebola. Dr. Moon highlighted the need for a global strategy to ensure adequate funding (external financing for the poorer countries and transparent tracking of financing) and the necessity for external assessment of country capacity. She pointed to the need for political and economic incentives and disincentives to not only report cases but also discourage the hiding of outbreaks. Reviewing each recommendation, the panel noted that “human health is a vital part of human security”. In one of her closing comments, Dr. Moon stated that “there are many unanswered questions regarding ebola response and we need to address a number of aspects that went wrong” and “a major theme is accountability at all levels, across all types of players.” Dr. Moon pointed out that the necessity of so many reforms shows just how much work is needed and that now is the time to see political support occur. Muhammad Pate, former Nigerian Minister of State for Health, expressed that “one of the lessons, at the national level, in terms of surveillance and accountability to respond, was missing and something that national leaders need to own up to is building their own public health systems.” Dr. Sophie Delaunay, Doctors Without Borders/MSF, then discussed the role of medical innovations and how the outbreak provided us with a unique opportunity to collect data. Dr. Delaunay said it will “be a complete nightmare to connect all the dots” in this outbreak and there is a desperate need for better R&D regarding disease outbreaks and response. “We ask for governments and policy makers to support collaboration on R&D to demonstrate their willingness to be more effective in the next outbreak” noted Dr. Delaunay. She heavily pushed for global financing efforts to facilitate investment in R&D and response. After the initial panel, there was a secondary group that shared their thoughts on the report, including Dr. Tom Frieden (CDC Director), Julie Gerberding (Exec. VP for Strategic Communications, Global Public Policy and Population Health, Merck) and Ron Klain (Former US Ebola Response Coordinator, White House and General Counsel, Revolution LLC). Ron Klain pointed to the failure of the WHO and “if institutions failed us, individuals shined. We did see extraordinary compassion from the rest of the world and tremendous outpouring of support. ” Mr. Klain mentioned that “the scariest thing about Ebola is the warning signs of how badly we failed this when the threat could’ve been worse and the epidemic we face could be much much more dangerous in the future.” Dr. Frieden emphasized the need of human resources management improvement at the WHO and how global outbreak response could work to support each other better. Lastly, Dr. Frieden emphasized a topic near and dear to my heart; infection control and it’s necessity in global disease prevention. Overall, the panel touched on several key points to the outbreak, emphasizing the need for the biggest players (including MSF) to lead by example via data sharing, etc. The push for political support on incentives and local capacity/accountability was perhaps one of the biggest recommendations and points emphasized from this event.

Gene Editing and CRISPR!
This was a busy week in the biotech world. The International Gene Editing Summit kicked off in Washington, DC. Bringing together experts from around the world, the summit touched on the newest technical innovations, ethical and legal concerns, and even social implications of genome editing advances. Genome Web has provided a great overview of the summit. Nature also published their Four Big Questions related to genome editing, touching on points related to editing the human germline and the ethical implications for technology that “researchers are still grappling with the known unknowns”. Recently, biologist, Emmanuelle Charpentier, discussed CRISPR-Cas9 and that it’s simply too early to begin gene editing as “the tools are not ready” and “as of today, I’m in favor of not having the manipulation of the human germlines. As long as they’re not perfect and ready, I think it’s good to have this ban against editing the germline.” Buzzfeed noted that over the course of the conference, there was a substantial push for a delay in the use of genetic engineering in fertility clinics due to the risk of making “designer babies”. Given the heavily debated nature of this topic it’s not surprising that the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the UK’s Royal Society, and the Chinese Academy of Science, all agreed that it “would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing.” While the future is left open to gene editing on humans, there was heavy accentuation throughout the conference on the ethics and societal views of these scientific breakthroughs and the necessity to revisit their applications on a regular basis.

Dengue Fever Outbreak in Hawaii 
The Dengue fever outbreak on Hawaii Island is still growing. Now at 122 confirmed cases, this is one of the biggest outbreaks they’ve seen with local transmission. As of 12/2, the confirmed cases involved 106 Hawaii Island residents and 16 visitors. The Hawaii Department of Health (HDOH) has published information, hoping to aid prevention efforts, regarding the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitos that are responsible for spreading the disease. There have been 313 reported potential cases and you can even find a map of the case distribution here!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 2015/2016 Flu Season- Where Are We?– The CDC 2015/2016 influenza activity showed a bit of a spike during the November 15-21 week. Influenza A (H3) is still the predominant species in laboratory confirmed cases. If you’re looking to keep an eye on seasonal flu, Google Flu Trends may no longer be operational, but you can still keep an eye on Flu Near You or the CDC’s page.
  • MERS-CoV Severity and Incubation Period– The CDC & Emerging Infectious Diseases published a report regarding the association of severe MERS-CoV illness and a shorter incubation period. Analyses of 170 patents in South Korea revealed a longer incubation period associated with a decreased risk for death while “patients who died had a shorter incubation period.” This mirrors the results of a previous study that had similar results with SARS coronavirus.
  • Salmonella Outbreak Associated With Recalled Nut Butters – The CDC is currently investigating 11 illnesses across nine states that may be linked to recalled nut butters. The Salmonella serotype is Paratyphoid B variant L (+) tatrate (+) (previously called Salmonella Java) and has caused illness in California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, and New Jersey.
  • Taiwan CDC Holds Bioterrorism Drill – Involving 70 participants, the course utilized a subway union station to allow people to simulate first responders and real-life operations. “CDC bioterrorism teams are tasked with the investigation and identification of biological threats and attacks. Members take on containment and mitigation of damage for any individuals that are harmed during and as a result of an attack.” Go Taiwan!

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It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3

It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3
By Greg Mercer

The Washington Post
The Washington Post

On November 24, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 bomber which had been flying over Syria, after an alleged violation of Turkish airspace.[1] Needless to say, the details are still emerging and the facts are still highly contested. The New York Times has an excellent comparison of claims made by Turkish and Russian officials, including the radar maps released by each country showing the airspace violation (or lack thereof).[2] Russian President Vladimir Putin called the shootdown a “stab in the back” and promised harsh consequences. Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO.

This incident and its bellicose rhetoric sparked immediate buzz about declarations of war, what exactly NATO owes Turkey vis-à-vis Russia[3], and the possibility of military confrontation between Russia and the West.  One particular phrase was cautioned against by reputable folks and seriously considered by less-than-stellar[4] sources: World War 3. I think this is really interesting, so I turned to good old search analytics to see how the internet reacted:
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Continue reading “It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3”

Pandora Report 8.9.15

My apologies for lack of update last weekend…but that means a SUPER UPDATE this weekend! This week marked the 70th anniversary of atomic bombs being dropped in Japan. Rather than find an insufficient story that attempted to address the gravity of that event, we’re focusing on a successful Ebola vaccine trial, UN consensus on Syrian chemical weapons, and airplane bathrooms (because I can’t help myself when I see a story like that!) We’ve also got stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

Vaccine Success Holds Hope for End to Deadly Scourge of Ebola

Some great news from West Africa: an Ebola vaccine trial in Guinea has returned results that are 100% effective. 4,000 people who had been in close contact with a confirmed Ebola case showed complete protection after ten days. A ring vaccination strategy—where those who have close contact with an infected person—was used, and after success was demonstrated, the vaccine is now being extended to 13-17 year olds, and possibly 6-12 year old children.

Reuters—“The success of the Guinea trial is a big relief for researchers, many of whom feared a sharp decline in cases this year would scupper their hopes of proving a vaccine could work. Another major trial in Liberia, which had aimed to recruit some 28,000 subjects, had to stop enrolling after only reaching its mid-stage target of 1,500 participants. Plans for testing in Sierra Leone were also scaled back. That left the study in Guinea, where Ebola is still infecting new victims, as the only real hope for demonstrating the efficacy of a vaccine.”

U.N. Approves Resolution on Syria Chemical Weapons

The UN Security Council unanimously—yes, even Russia—adopted a resolution aimed at identifying those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria over the past two years. The resolution established an investigative body that would assign blame for the attacks “so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice.”

Salt Lake Tribune—“‘Pointing a finger matters,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the council. “This sends a clear and powerful message to all those involved in chemical weapons attacks in Syria that the [new investigative body] will identify you if you gas people.” But she added that prosecuting perpetrators will take time because there is still no tribunal to investigate alleged crimes during the war in Syria, which has killed at least 250,000 people since it began in March 2011, according to the U.N.”

Airplane Toilets Can Help Researchers Find Disease Outbreaks

A recent study in Scientific Reports finds that researchers can tell what continent you’re from and give early indication of disease outbreaks, all from the poop left in airplanes. (I think this is the first time I’ve been able to say “poop” here on the blog.) The researchers gathered samples from 18 airplanes that departed from nine cities and landed in Copenhagen and were able to identify continental trends. Microbes from Southeast Asia had higher incidence of antibiotic resistance; food transmitted microbes were also more frequent in the Southeast Asian samples; and C. diff was much more common in the North American samples.

Popular Science—“These findings led the researchers to believe that they could start to create a typical microbiome for each continent. And any big shifts that happen in their makeup—say, the concentration of C. diff rises dramatically in samples from Southeast Asia—could indicate a growing public health issue. If it’s caught early enough, public health officials could take preventative action.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: CDC Global

NASA’s Unique Place in American Science and Security

By Greg Mercer

We talk a lot here about the intersection of science, technology, and security studies, and NASA has sat squarely in the center of that relationship since it was called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The Hill reports that GOP legislation is threatening NASA’s plan to develop its own launch vehicles to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Currently, the US relies on Russia for this capability. Defunding domestic launch capabilities would result in continued reliance on Russian launch capacity, which has cost $1.2 billion since late 2011. The House and Senate spending measures undercut the $1.24 billion needed for the Commercial Crew Program—which would pay for Boeing and SpaceX to develop manned spacecraft by 2017—by up to $300 million.

Relying on Russia for launch capacity creates an interesting contradiction. First, NASA is not a military organization, and its activities are largely in the spirit of international cooperation, especially when it comes to Russia. However, defense hawks tend to oppose Russia’s ongoing incursions into Ukraine, sometimes loudly. This generally means supporting increased sanctions and avoiding cooperation, so it wouldn’t seem to follow that while scolding Russia for their military actions towards their neighbor, the US should also continue to rely on them for launch capacity. This isn’t the first time this sort of relationship has been framed this way. Foreign oil dependence has been a buzzword for decades, and it’s an issue that combines two different issues- energy and defense- into one. The argument goes that relying on potentially unstable partners for oil is a threat to national security, since the collapse of an oil-exporting partner could require military action to protect American energy interests. Regardless of this argument’s veracity, it has persuaded lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pursue energy production means other than oil imports. A similar argument follows for Russia: if the US wants to economically punish Russia’s aggression and remain the forefront player in the space industry, why would it pay Russia to transport its astronauts?

I support NASA’s budget pretty vehemently, but for somewhat more optimistic reasons. I’m a strong proponent of space exploration of a national goal and a human endeavor, but I’m not adverse to a simple economic argument. Take a look at the list of NASA spin-off technologies. NASA has developed a huge range of technologies that undeniably benefit technology investors, the US, and the world at large.

For the first time since the shuttle program, NASA’s Orion program is providing the agency with long-term goals for manned spaceflight. And if you want to talk about a real security threat, no organization is better suited to detect and potentially avert objects that pose a threat to Earth. NASA pays science and security dividends in spades. Hopefully the hawks and the doves can come together to support it.

Image Credit: MrMiscellanious

Pandora Report 6.28.15

It was a big week, right? The Supreme Court was making declarations and in California the General Assembly was making some decisions of their own. We’ve got the mandate for childhood vaccines in California, World War II chemical weapons testing, and other stories you may have missed.

There will be no news round up next week, in honor of one of my favorite holidays, Independence Day! I’ll be wearing red, white, and blue, watching July 4th themed movies, and celebrating with all the American spirit I can muster. I wish all of you the same!

See you back here in July!

California Passes Bill to Require Vaccines and Ban Religious Exemptions

On Thursday, the California State Assembly passed SB 277, which mandates that children attending day care or public school must be vaccinated. The bill eliminated personal-belief and religious exemptions. Largely, this bill was in response to the outbreak of measles that began at Disneyland last year. Children who cannot receive vaccinations for medical reasons can still receive the vaccine exemption. Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill into law.

Slate—“The New York Times quoted Christina Hildebrand, the founder of A Voice for Choice, a nonprofit organization that has lobbied against the bill, about her unsuccessful campaign to stop this legislation, “There are large numbers of parents who are very concerned about the fact that we’re going to have mandated medical treatment against a fundamental right to education. Parental freedom is being taken away by this, because the fear of contagion is trumping it.’”

Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops by Race

According to documents declassified in the 1990s, the U.S. Army conducted secret chemical weapons tests on minority soldiers in order to determine the effect weapons had on non-white skin. African-American and Puerto Rican soldiers were tested upon to see if their darker pigment made them less susceptible to the weapons. Japanese-Americans were used to determine how the weapons would affect enemy Japanese soldiers. The soldiers were subjected to mustard gas and lewisite and volunteered for the assignment.

NPR—“All of the World War II experiments with mustard gas were done in secret and weren’t recorded on the subjects’ official military records. Most do not have proof of what they went through. They received no follow-up health care or monitoring of any kind. And they were sworn to secrecy about the tests under threat of dishonorable discharge and military prison time, leaving some unable to receive adequate medical treatment for their injuries, because they couldn’t tell doctors what happened to them.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: David Monniaux

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