Introduction to Issues in International Security
Years later, still unclear why US staff in Cuba, China experienced strange symptoms
A National Academies panel commissioned by the State Department shed new light on a disturbing and still mysterious episode. Employees in the Cuban embassy reported headaches, pressure, nausea, strange piercing noises, and cognitive problems seeming to emanate from a directed source. Commerce Department employees in China also had similar experiences. Dr. David Relman discusses some of what hampered the investigation.
Listen to the interview at Federal News Network
A National Academies panel commissioned by the State Department shed new light on a disturbing and still mysterious episode. Employees in the Cuban embassy reported headaches, pressure, nausea, strange piercing noises, and cognitive problems seeming to emanate from a directed source. Commerce Department employees in China also had similar experiences.
Evidence-Based Practice for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response
Yet there has been no national-level, comprehensive review of the evidence for public health emergency preparedness and response (PHEPR) practices. Recognizing this deficiency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine three years ago and asked them to convene a national panel of public health experts to review the evidence for emergency preparedness and response. The committee members included Stanford Health Policy Director Douglas K. Owens. The committee issued its findings July 14 with a report at a Zoom conference.
Evolving perspectives on risk in biology and the life sciences
Abstract: Against a backdrop of emerging and reemerging infectious diseases of natural origin, fueled by changes in land use and global climate, there is an ongoing revolution in the life sciences with growing empowerment of the individual to decipher, genetically alter, and manufacture living things. In addition to widely-touted potential benefits, these events and developments pose challenges and risks of profound harm to humans and the rest of the planet. Yet, the United States and most other nations have failed to respond with a strategic plan, sustained resources, coherent leadership, critical self-assessment, and accountability. Why is this? A selected history of recent naturally-occurring disease outbreaks and advances in the life sciences that create new risks of potential misuse will be offered, differing perspectives from the science and policy communities described, and some of the efforts to address these challenges summarized. Forward-looking proposals for efforts to mitigate risk in the life sciences will be discussed.
Speaker Bio: David A. Relman, M.D., is the Thomas C. and Joan M. Merigan Professor in Medicine, and Microbiology & Immunology at Stanford University, and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. He is also Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and served as science co-director at the Center for International Security and Cooperation from 2013-2017. He is currently director of a new Biosecurity Initiative at FSI.
Relman identified several historically important and novel microbial disease agents, and was an early pioneer in the modern study of the human indigenous microbiota (microbiome). His lab group currently examines human microbial community assembly, and community stability and resilience.
Among policy-relevant activities, Relman is currently a member of the Intelligence Community Studies Board at the National Academies of Science (NAS), served as vice-chair of the NAS Committee that reviewed the science performed for the FBI 2001 Anthrax Letters investigation, and was a member of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity. He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2011.
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David A. Relman, M.D., is the Thomas C. and Joan M. Merigan Professor in the Departments of Medicine, and of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University, and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, California. He is also Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford, and served as science co-director at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford from 2013-2017. He is currently director of a new Biosecurity Initiative at FSI.
Relman was an early pioneer in the modern study of the human indigenous microbiota. Most recently, his work has focused on human microbial community assembly, and community stability and resilience in the face of disturbance. Ecological theory and predictions are tested in clinical studies with multiple approaches for characterizing the human microbiome. Previous work included the development of molecular methods for identifying novel microbial pathogens, and the subsequent identification of several historically important microbial disease agents. One of his papers was selected as “one of the 50 most important publications of the past century” by the American Society for Microbiology.
Dr. Relman received an S.B. (Biology) from MIT, M.D. from Harvard Medical School, and joined the faculty at Stanford in 1994. He served as vice-chair of the NAS Committee that reviewed the science performed as part of the FBI investigation of the 2001 Anthrax Letters, as a member of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity, and as President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. He is currently a member of the Intelligence Community Studies Board and the Committee on Science, Technology and the Law, both at the National Academies of Science. He has received an NIH Pioneer Award, an NIH Transformative Research Award, and was elected a member of the National Academy of Medicine in 2011.
Biological threats: why the US is 'dangerously vulnerable'
Abstract: The threat of biological catastrophes-- stemming from natural, accidental or intentional causes-- looms ever larger as populations urbanize, global temperatures rise, and the access to biological weapons spreads. In fact, climate change and the increasing ease with which biological weapons may be obtained represent two significant threats to public health. As these threats materialize, they test nations’ resources, capabilities, and strength. Through an examination of the policy and scientific challenges posed by weaponized biological agents as well as by the growing public health risks stemming from climate change impacts, key gaps in bio-preparedness emerge. Bio-preparedness efforts, nationally and globally, do not currently keep pace with emerging biological risks. Will the scientific and policy communities find common ground to move the global health agenda forward through prevention, detection, and response?
Speaker Bio: Alice Hill is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She previously served at the White House as Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Senior Director for Resilience Policy on the National Security Council. Hill led the creation of national policy regarding catastrophic risk, including the impacts of climate change and biological threats.
Hill previously served as Senior Counselor to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She headed the DHS Biological Leadership group and led development of Department strategies and policies regarding catastrophic biological and chemical incidents, ranging from pandemics to weapons of mass destruction. Hill also founded and was the first Chair of the Blue Campaign, an internationally recognized anti-human trafficking campaign.
Earlier in her career, Hill has served as a supervising judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court and as chief of the white-collar crime unit in the Los Angeles US Attorney’s Office.
She is a frequent speaker and has been quoted in the NY Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She has appeared on CBS, NPR, and MSNBC and her commentary has been published in Newsweek, LawFare, The Hill, and other media. She has received numerous awards and commendations, including the Department of Justice’s highest award for legal accomplishment, Harvard’s Meta-Leader of the Year Award, and the San Fernando Valley Bar’s Judge of the Year.
On Defining Global Catastrophic Biological Risks
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has formulated an encompassing working definition of global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) that reflects diverse sources of risk and mechanisms of damage. The authors draw on their definition to highlight some important considerations for understanding and addressing GCBRs.
How likely is it that biological agents will be used deliberately to cause widespread harm?
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The fact that biological weapons have never been used—at least in recent history—is not sufficient reason to dismiss concerns that terrorists or nations could acquire and use dangerous pathogens as weapons. The ongoing discussion about gain-of-function experiments should take this very real prospect more seriously.
Encouraging future leaders in biosecurity
Biosecurity leaders gathered at Stanford this week to offer new ideas and perspectives on a wide range of issues critical to societal health.
The conference, “Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity,” began Sept. 13 with a trip to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the East Bay. The second day featured a series of panel discussions on the Stanford campus. The fellows, chosen by the UPMC Center for Health Security, hailed from a wide array of backgrounds, including biological science, medicine, policy, the military, law, public health and the private sector.
Biosecurity and its relationship to global health is a key issue for Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), which hosted and helped organize the conference along with the sponsoring UPMC Center. The conference was sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the emerging leaders program run by the UPMC.
With rapid advances in technology and science, biosecurity is increasingly focused on how harmful biological agents could become national security threats and risks.
‘A changing world’
David Relman, co-director of CISAC, addressed the fellows on Wednesday with remarks on the origins of CISAC’s involvement in biosecurity. Relman, a professor in the departments of medicine, and microbiology and immunology, later served as a panelist in a discussion on biosecurity and national and international policy.
Megan Palmer, a fellow and CISAC senior research scholar on biosecurity, panel moderator and organizer of the conference, described the program as one that “brings together some of the most talented and committed rising leaders from multiple organizations and disciplines critical to national and international biosecurity.”
She noted, “Stanford's biosecurity programs are focused on developing strategies for biosecurity in a changing world. Today we face complex biosecurity challenging ranging from emerging infectious diseases, intentional misuse of biotechnology, and potential accidents and unintentional consequences of our increasing ability to manipulate living systems.”
At the same time, biotechnology continues to be an important and growing part of the global economy, Palmer said. “Our scholarship and engagement work seeks to developing new ways to think about and act in this changing environment.”
Through the “emerging leaders” program, fellows deepen their expertise in biosecurity, build leadership skills, and forge networks of lasting professional relationships, she added.
The two-day conference included talks on threat awareness, biodetection, a “viral storm” exercise, bioengineering research, computational biology and national security, biosecurity and national and international policy, the evolving biotechnology field, among other topics.
Stanford participants and speakers included CISAC’s William Perry, the former secretary of defense; Drew Endy, a Stanford associate professor of bioengineering; Tim Stearns, chair of the biology department; Milana Trounce, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine; and Manu Prakash, assistant professor of bioengineering.
CISAC activity in biosecurity includes research on:
- Risks in misusing the emerging life sciences;
- Social and political factors behind drug-resistant antibiotics, leading to an tight pipeline for new drugs;
- Examining the ethical responsibilities of scientists in this field and the needs for regulation;
- Anticipating and pre-empting the misuse of biotechnology by people with the intent to do harm.
Matthew Watson, a senior analyst for the UPMC Center, said, “It is difficult to imagine a more fitting venue for the fall Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity workshop than Stanford. Few institutions can bring together this array of world class talent, including leaders from national security, the life sciences, and the private sector.”
Back in February, the UPMC Center for Health Security chose its 2016 fellows and launched the program with a Washington, D.C. workshop in March.
Biotechnology and Security: Are We Prepared?
Abstract: Biotechnology is rapidly diffusing globally. Efficient methods for reading, writing, and editing genetic information, producing genetic diversity, and selecting for traits are becoming widely available. New communities of practice are gaining the power to act on timescales and geographies that fall outside current systems of oversight. Governments and scientific communities alike are struggling to respond appropriately.
Recent controversies have brought these issues to light: “gain-of-function” research may risk causing the very pandemics it aims to help mitigate; the development of “gene drives” may drastically alter ecosystems; and crowd-funded “CRISPR kits” are giving decentralized communities access to powerful new tools. Meanwhile, a series of accidents at the nation’s premier biological labs, and recent struggles in responses to Ebola and Zika are raising concerns about the capacity to respond to biological threats regardless of their cause – accidental, deliberate or naturally occurring. The lack of mechanisms to assess the benefits and risks of advances in biotechnology has prompted reactive and blunt policy solutions including scientific and government-lead research moratoriums.
This presentation will review recent developments and discuss improved strategies for preparing for emerging biological risks. It will highlight key needs and opportunities in leadership, oversight and learning to mature our institutions to tackle long-term governance challenges.
About the Speaker: Dr. Megan J. Palmer is a Senior Research Scholar and William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. She leads a research program focused on risk governance in biotechnology and other emerging technologies. Dr. Palmer is also an investigator of the multi-university Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc), where for the last 5 years she served as Deputy Director of its policy-related research program, and led projects in safety and security, property rights, and community organization and governance. She was previously a research scientist at the California Center for Quantitative Bioscience at UC Berkeley, and an affiliate of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs.
Dr. Palmer has created and led many programs aimed at developing and promoting best practices and policies for the responsible development of biotechnology. She founded and serves as Executive Director of the Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (LEAP), an international fellowship program in responsible biotechnology leadership. She also leads programs in safety and responsible innovation for the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Dr. Palmer advises a diversity of organizations on their approach to policy issues in biotechnology, including serving on the board of the synthetic biology program of the Joint Genomics Institute (JGI)
Dr. Palmer holds a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering from MIT, and was a postdoctoral scholar in the Bioengineering Department at Stanford University, when she first became a CISAC affiliate. She received a B.Sc.E. in Engineering Chemistry from Queen’s University, Canada.
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Dr. Megan J. Palmer is the Executive Director of Bio Policy & Leadership Initiatives at Stanford University (Bio-polis). In this role, Dr. Palmer leads integrated research, teaching and engagement programs to explore how biological science and engineering is shaping our societies, and to guide innovation to serve public interests. Based in the Department of Bioengineering, she works closely both with groups across the university and with stakeholders in academia, government, industry and civil society around the world.
In addition to fostering broader efforts, Dr. Palmer leads a focus area in biosecurity in partnership with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford. Projects in this area examine how security is conceived and managed as biotechnology becomes increasingly accessible. Her current projects include assessing strategies for governing dual use research, analyzing the diffusion of safety and security norms and practices, and understanding the security implications of alternative technology design decisions.
Dr. Palmer has created and led many programs aimed at developing and promoting best practices and policies for the responsible development of bioengineering. For the last ten years she has led programs in safety, security and social responsibility for the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which last year involved over 6000 students in 353 teams from 48 countries. She also founded and serves as Executive Director of the Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (LEAP), an international fellowship program in biotechnology leadership. She advises and works with many other organizations on their strategies for the responsible development of bioengineering, including serving on the board of directors of Revive & Restore, a nonprofit organization advancing biotechnologies for conservation.
Previously, Megan was a Senior Research Scholar and William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), part of FSI, where she is now an affiliated researcher. She also spent five years as Deputy Director of Policy and Practices for the multi-university NSF Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc). She has previously held positions as a project scientist at the California Center for Quantitative Bioscience at the University of California Berkeley (where she was an affiliate of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs), and a postdoctoral scholar in the Bioengineering Department at Stanford University. Dr. Palmer received her Ph.D. in Biological Engineering from M.I.T. and a B.Sc.E. in Engineering Chemistry from Queen’s University, Canada.