Pandora Report: 6.3.2022

Happy Friday! This week we discuss some of the current concerns about the continued spread of monkeypox in non-endemic countries, the end of Aum Shinrikyo’s status as a foreign terrorist organization in the US, Shanghai’s lockdown, and the Office International des Epizooties’ rebranding. New reports from WHO, CRS, RAND, and more are listed as well as several upcoming events, including a multi-day conference focused on biodefense support to the warfighter and a webinar on COVID-19 in the DPRK with the Korea Economic Institute.

Monkeypox On the Move

Monkeypox continues to spread in non-endemic countries, attracting global media attention. However, monkeypox has been known for the last several decades and cases have been climbing in parts of West and Central Africa for years now. Monkeypox is endemic in 10 countries in Africa, with the DRC having seen 1,284 cases this year alone so far. As of May 26, the UK had the highest caseload in a non-endemic country at 106, hinting at the idea that this attention might be in part spurred by the fact that that the disease is spreading in Europe and North America.

Monkeypox spread in May 2022. Source: https://www.statista.com/chart/27537/countries-with-monkeypox-cases/

Recent works highlight the need to listen to those scientists in Africa who have experience with this virus as well as hopes we can learn from failures with COVID-19 and HIV. Many are concerned that the US and other Western countries will repeat their earlier COVID-19 and HIV outbreak response mistakes in disease surveillance and public communication while others worry experts with experience with this virus will be forgotten. Furthermore, as cases are mostly in men who have sex with men, there are valid concerns about how stigmas may play into global response to monkeypox. The CDC’s Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, said in a video, “I urge everyone to approach this outbreak without stigma and without discrimination.”

These developments have also renewed some conversations on the closely related, though much more deadly, smallpox and its remaining samples, including renewed calls to destroy the samples. While smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, the US and Russia both maintain samples in secure facilities, and research with these samples requires approval from the WHO. There are also concerns and suspicions that there are other, unofficial samples elsewhere in Russia and in other countries used for BW research, complicating the entire matter.

Aum Shinrikyo Will No Longer Be Recognized As a Foreign Terrorist Organization

This week, the Department of State announced the revocation of five Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations under the Immigration and Nationality Act, including those of Basque Fatherland and Liberty, Aum Shinrikyo, Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, Kahane Chai, and Gama’a al-Islamiyya. Aum Shinrikyo is infamous for the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks during which the group used sarin gas to kill over a dozen people and injure many more. Prior to the sarin attacks, the group attempted to use biological weapons, in what the Nuclear Threat Initiative has described as the “most extensive non-state biological weapons program unearthed to date.” This included a failed 1993 attack wherein the group attempted to release anthrax spores from atop a Tokyo office building, among other failures. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers that the removal of the designation was the product of the administrative review that is required by law to occur every five years. NHK also reported that, “The department announced the revocation on Friday, saying the group is “no longer engaged in terrorism or terrorist activity” and does not retain “the capability and intent to do so.”

Shanghai Lockdown Ends

Shanghai’s lockdown of the city’s nearly 25 million people ended this week after 65 days, to much celebration across the area. While most in the city can now return to life as normal, the Chinese media appears to have been instructed to report on this without actually referring to ending the lockdown, according to the Guardian. The directive, leaked to California-based China Daily Times, reads in part:

1. Do not use the phrase “ending the lockdown.” Unlike Wuhan, Shanghai never declared a lockdown, so there is no “ending the lockdown.” All parts of Shanghai underwent static management-style suppression and suspensions, but the city’s core functions kept operating throughout this period. Emphasize that related measures were temporary, conditional, and limited. The resumption on June 1 will also be conditional: it is by no means the case that every person in every district across the whole city will be able to freely head out at once, nor that this is a uniform relaxation. Reports should not play up “comprehensive relaxation” or “comprehensive [return to] normality” ….

Furthermore, while Shanghai and other cities are ending their lockdowns, the Party still insists on sticking to its Zero COVID strategy, despite ongoing concerns about lack of access to quality vaccines and other issues challenging the strategy. This Monday, China’s National Health Commission reported just 97 cases in the country, again calling into question the reliability of their numbers. While the use of roundabout ways to describe the lockdown are not necessarily surprising, they again demonstrate that the Party remains committed to maintaining its narratives above all else.

Say “Hello” to the World Organisation for Animal Health

The Office International des Epizooties (more commonly known simply as OIE) has rebranded to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, or OMSA in French and Spanish for L’Organisation mondiale de la santé animale and Organización Mundial de Sanidad Animal respectively). The change is part of an effort to promote solutions which understand animal health as intrinsically linked to human health. Learn more about the change and WOAH’s future with this video from the organization.

“Towards a Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of Life Sciences: Summary Report of Consultations on the Principles, Gaps and Challenges of Biorisk Management, May 2022”

This new summary report from the WHO discusses challenges in maintaining high scientific, safety, security and ethical standards in the life sciences. As a result of growing challenges and concerns in this area, WHO is developing a Global Guidance Framework for the Responsible Use of Life Sciences. As part of this process, WHO formed four working groups of experts, whose work and recommendations are summarized in this report. It includes a number of recommendations, including that universities and other research institutions “should promote a culture of biosafety and biosecurity in research environments at every stage of basic and applied life sciences,” and “publishers should promote and practise a culture of biorisk management in scientific publishing.” Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz served on three of the four working groups included in the report.

“Oversight of Gain of Function Research with Pathogens: Issues for Congress”

Tom Kuiken, Science and Technology Policy Analyst at the Congressional Research Service, discusses core concepts and policy challenges surrounding gain of function (GOF) research in this report prepared for Congress in May. He focuses on the challenges of minimizing risks, optimizing outcomes, and addressing diverse stakeholder concerns throughout, writing “The general public is at the center of the GOF debate, with experts on each side invoking the public’s well-being as reasoning for their positions. Currently there is limited public engagement around GOF research on pathogens and the role the U.S. government has in its funding and oversight. When weighing options addressing these complex and intertwined policy issues, Congress may have to balance competing and, in some instances, conflicting national and international priorities.”

BARDA Strategic Plan, 2022-2026

The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority’s newest strategic plan was recently released, covering years 2022 through 2026. This five year plan focuses on improvement goals in four areas-preparedness, response, partnerships, and workforce. It pays particular attention to developing strong, multi-purpose medical countermeasures to improve pandemic response and creating more flexible partnerships across sectors to do so.

“COVID-19 Impact on Antimicrobial Stewardship: Consequences and Silver Linings”

Zhou et al.’s article in Contagion Live discusses both the positive and negative impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on antimicrobial stewardship programs. They discuss negatives in the context of burnout and overuse of antimicrobials throughout the pandemic. However, they also note this situation has brought more attention to antimicrobial stewardship experts while strengthening multidisciplinary work, both of which are clear positive outcomes.

“Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: DHS Could Improve Its Acquisition of Key Technology and Coordination With Partners”

This April report from the Government Accountability Office discusses the more than three years of delays the Department of Homeland Security has endured in trying to acquire new radiation portal monitors. GAO writes, “The Department of Homeland Security works with federal, state, and local partners to combat chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. As part of these efforts, DHS is replacing radiation portal monitors that scan cargo at U.S. ports. The new monitors were intended to reduce nuisance alarms from naturally occurring radiation in consumer goods—reducing unnecessary delays. But, the new monitors have been delayed by more than 3 years, and those being tested have higher nuisance alarm rates than monitors currently in use at ports. We recommended that DHS reassess its acquisition strategy for radiation portal monitors.”

“Implication of the Pandemic for Terrorist Interest in Biological Weapons: Islamic State and al-Qaeda Pandemic Case Studies”

This new report from RAND explores two key questions: 1) “What if the IS or al-Qaeda obtained and spread a highly contagious virus in a community or country that they sought to punish?” and 2) “With the pandemic highlighting weaknesses in response efforts, will these groups now seek to obtain infectious viruses to achieve these same deadly results?” Though it determines that the pandemic is unlikely to increase these groups’ interest in BW, it does also note that, “COVID-19 and the effects of global climate change are stern prompts to reimagine threats to national and international security.” It offers a number of cogent recommendations, including improving collaboration between animal and human health.

Lobes and Robes Podcast, “Episode 6: : Chemical Weapons: The Science and the Policy”

This episode features American University Chemistry Professor Stefano Costanzi, an expert both on the harm chemicals pose to living organisms and global security policies aimed at protecting the public from those dangers. In conversation with Drs. Carle and Davidson, Dr. Costanzi discusses the gaps in current policies and practices that allow chemical weapons to proliferate as well as some of his ideas about solutions and tools to narrow those gaps. Dr. Costanzi’s work itself bridges the neuroscience and public policy divide, and in so doing he models how science and policy can be brought into communication with each other.

North Korea’s COVID Outbreak: A Conversation with Kee B. Park, MD

Early in the pandemic, North Korea shut its borders to the outside world to prevent the spread of COVID-19 domestically. For the last two years, North Korea’s border controls have largely protected the population from the pandemic but that changed in early May when Pyongyang announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 and large numbers of a quickly-spreading fever. Join KEI for a discussion with Kee B. Park, MD about how North Korea is handling the outbreak of COVID-19 and how the international community could help. Dr. Park is a Lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association. He leads the collaboration between U.S. and North Korean physicians. Since 2007, he has made 19 visits to North Korea, most recently in November 2019. This event will take place June 6, 2022 at 11:30am EST. RSVP here. The discussion will also be livestreamed via YouTube.

RADx® Initiative & COVID-19 Solutions: Bioengineering at Unprecedented Speed and Scale

This Council on Strategic Risks webinar will discuss the RADx Initiative, which was launched in April 2020 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to speed innovation in COVID-19 testing. The initiative has been incredibly successful in supporting the development and implementation of accurate, easy-to-use, and accessible testing technologies, and it serves as a useful model for current and future public-private partnerships and interagency collaboration. The event will feature three fantastic panelists who have been deeply involved in RADx: Dr. Bruce Tromberg, Dr. Jill Heemskerk, and Dr. Rachael Fleurence. CSR CEO and Nolan Center Director Christine Parthemore will moderate. This webinar is open to the public, and will include a Q&A session for our experts to answer the audience’s questions. It will take place on June 8 at 1pm EST. Registration is open here. It will be recorded and posted on CSR’s Youtube channel.

Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House

The Schar School is hosting a virtual open house for all of its master’s and certificate programs, including those in biodefense, on June 8, 2022 at 6 pm EST. This is a great opportunity to learn more about all our programs and to meet key faculty members! Register here.

Medical, Biomedical and Biodefense: Support to the Warfighter

The Offices of Senator Richard Burr, Senator Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Military Business Center and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center will host the Medical, Biomedical & Biodefense: Support to the Warfighter Symposium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on June 8-9, 2022. Of particular interest, it will include a panel on biodefense moderated by David Lasseter, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, on June 9 at 3 pm EST that will feature a number of fantastic experts.

Medical Support to the Warfighter will connect businesses in North Carolina with military and other federal agencies that require or purchase medical supplies, equipment, devices, pharmaceuticals, medical information technology and medical services. Representatives from the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, including their prime vendors and major contractors, will highlight current resource gaps and needs, future requirements and procurement processes to supply military and federal medical facilities. Learn more and register at the link above.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

We are currently working on creating a searchable collection of resources on Russian WMD disinformation on the Pandora Report site. The page is currently under construction, and now just lists resources we have highlighted in the past. While we do not have a new one to add to the list this week, here is an interesting read on President Putin’s past with red mercury, a fake chemical compound with supposed nuclear applications that was popular on the black market as the Soviet Union collapsed.