• Spring 2020
précis SPRING 2020: Briefings
May 20, 2020

Will the Covid-19 pandemic change national security?
Robert Art retires as director of the Seminar XXI Program
Sara Plana receives the inaugural Jeanne Guillemin Prize
Yukio Okamoto, Japanese diplomat and MIT research fellow, felled by Covid-19
Africa takes on Covid-19 at MIT-sponsored hackathan
Covid-19 pandemic insights from iGEM Biosecurity Policy Conference


Will the Covid-19 pandemic change national security?

Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office 

At MIT’s Starr Forum, experts consider whether the coronavirus crisis might lead to a rethinking of defense strategies. This article first appeared here. The event is available to watch here on YouTube. 

Screen shot of webinar with speakers

The virtual Starr Forum, “Rethinking National Security in the Age of Pandemics,” featured (clockwise from top left) Yasmeen Silva, Jim Walsh, Joe Cirincione, and Vipin Narang

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to inflict huge damage around the world, international affairs experts are increasingly wondering: Will the virus make countries reconsider their national security strategies? After all, conventional defense capacities have been of limited use against a devastating contagion—and more viruses like Covid-19 may well be out there.

While few people will confidently forecast exactly how the pandemic will alter the world, defense experts have at least started discussing some of its implications for security policy. That conversation continued in an online MIT event on Thursday, “Rethinking National Security in the Age of Pandemics,” as experts from inside and outside the Institute evaluated some key questions driven by the current crisis. 

The panel was the latest iteration of MIT’s Starr Forum, a series of events on foreign policy issues held by the Center for International Studies.

For some observers, rethinking security starts with defense spending and budget priorities. For all the trillions spent on military buildups in recent decades, most military functions do not apply to a pandemic.

“Since 9/11, we’ve had a certain mindset on national security,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. “The pandemic has fundamentally altered the equation.”

As evidence for a shifting midset in policy circles, Cirincione cited a series of foreign-policy experts who have been calling for a reorientation of security thinking in light of the pandemic. The neoconservative thinker Max Boot, Cirincione noted, recently wrote in The Washington Post that we “have to rethink the whole concept of national security” because “the last 20 years have seen us face these threats that do not have military solutions to them,” including pandemics, climate change, and cybersecurity problems.

Given that annual US spending on nuclear weapons exceeds the amount spent on public health, Cirincione added, there is a clear imperative for changing budget priorities, so the US can “start right now having a savvier 21st century definition of national security.”

Yasmeen Silva, partnerships manager at Beyond the Bomb, an advocacy group against nuclear war, also made a case for significantly altering the approach to US security. "Due to this misplacement of priorities, we’re seeing that we’re not able to meet the threats of the 21st century that actually make us less safe,” Silva said.

Security, Silva noted, can be measured by “preventable deaths” for “everyday Americans,” and she suggested an array of spending priorities, beyond weapons, to advance that cause—including health care, direct economic relief, aid for workers and communities, and protection for democratic functions. Those things, Silva added, would help the country “move forward in a way that sets an agenda for true safety and security.”

Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a leading expert in nuclear strategy, said that an effective response to the pandemic would almost certainly require more extensive international collaboration and work.

“There will be a fundamental transformation in how we think about pandemic identification, response, and preparedness, and hopefully, at the global level,” Narang said. “This requires cooperation between China, European partners, the Middle East, India, East Asian countries, the United States, to set up early monitoring capabilities, so that when this happens again …we will be better prepared to identify novel pathogens. And that will require money and cooperation.”

Moreover, Narang said, the nature of a response has to be global, given the virtual impossibility of shuttering international travel and the global links in the economy.

“The idea we could shut the borders and be immune to the virus was mistaken from the beginning,” Narang said.

Narang also identified some short-term implications for national security brought about by the pandemic, such as massive troop illnesses, as seen on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier with hundreds of Covid-19 cases on board. Narang also noted that the incapacitation of leaders in nuclear-equipped countries—such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalized for Covid-19 this month—might raise tricky defense-leadership issues as well.

While the reorientation of security thinking may have a clear logic to it, actually enacting things like budget changes or support for new policies is no sure thing—as the panelists acknowledged in response to an audience question.

Quoting comments by Representative Ro Khanna of California, Cirincione said, “This is not something that necessarily happens automatically. Especially in Washington. You’ve got to fight for it.” Silva, for her part, advocated for a “united front” among constituents to pressure Congress for meaningful new directions.

And while there are clear incentives for new international cooperation during pandemics, as well as potentially shifting budget priorities for many countries, international tensions may not necessarily be reduced by the Covid-19 crisis, as Narang noted in response to another audience question.

“I don’t take it for granted that economic shocks necessarily lead to peace,” Narang said. “That’s one argument, to be sure. But there is an alternative argument that you can have diversionary war incentives also, if this economic downturn really starts undermining the legitimacy of some countries and governments.”

Thursday’s Starr Forum event was moderated by Jim Walsh, a research associate in MIT’s Security Studies Program and a leading expert in weapons proliferation and foreign policy. The event drew a virtual crowd of 420 audience members.

Events in the series are ongoing and have been moved to an online format during the Covid-19 crisis, which has led to the temporary closure of the MIT campus.


Robert Art retires as director of the Seminar XXI Program after 20 years of dedicated service

Michelle English | CIS 

Headshot of Robert Art

Robert Art is the Christian A Herter Professor of International Relations, Emeritus at Brandeis University, a senior fellow at the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP), and has directed the CIS Seminar XXI program since 2000

Robert Art will step down from his role as the director of the Seminar XXI Program effective June 30.  Art is the Christian A Herter Professor of International Relations, Emeritus at Brandeis University and a senior fellow at the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP). He has directed the CIS Seminar XXI program since 2000.

The Seminar XXI Program is one of the most successful and competitive post-graduate education programs in the national security arena.  It links policymaking and academia by bringing together military and civilian executives with scholars from MIT and beyond.

Since its inception as an MIT program in 1986, it has inspired its graduates to apply the compelling insights of social science to the most pressing challenges of our times. It currently boasts 2,530 alumni, who serve or have served in high ranking positions in government, including the CIA, the US Department of State, and the US Department of Defense.

“I consider it an honor and a privilege to have been affiliated with Seminar XXI for two decades because of the quality of the people I worked with: the staff—Tisha Gomes and Jen Kempe; the many faculty at MIT and other universities, here and abroad; and, of course, the fellows from the US military and the senior civilian ranks of the US government, whose dedication, integrity, and patriotism I deeply respect. Seminar XXI immeasurably enriched my life and for that I am profoundly grateful," said Art.

Under Art’s leadership, the US—and US security—faced several of the greatest challenges in living memory, including 9/11 and Covid-19.  Through it all, his steadfast commitment and dedication to the mission of Seminar XXI ensured the program's continuing success.  His guidance and coordination of the fellows, alumni, faculty, and the staff have cultivated a diverse and enduring network of professional relationships.

“Few can chair a panel discussion that blends scholarship and policy analysis in national security, and which ensures the participation of speakers and audience, as well as Bob.  Most of what I know about chairing such meetings I learned from him.  All of us are grateful for his long tenure as Seminar XXI director,” said  Barry Posen, Ford International Professor of Political Science, director emeritus of SSP, and a member of Seminar XXI’s executive board.  

“Art has made prolific contributions to the field of security studies,” said Posen. Art’s co-edited book, The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics—a compendium of analysis by influential thinkers—is a boon to young faculty.  Art also served on the founding editorial team of the Cornell University Press Security Affairs series.

On July 1, Art will pass the stewardship of Seminar XXI to Kenneth Oye, a professor of political science in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and a professor of data systems and society in the School of Engineering. Oye also directs the Program on Emerging Technologies at CIS

A long-standing executive board member of the program, Oye is well-known to generations of Seminar XXI fellows and faculty. He will serve as the program’s interim director for one year.  

Beginning in July 2021, Kelly Greenhill, a professor of political science at Tufts University—and a Seminar XXI veteran and an executive board member—will become a visiting professor at MIT, a senior fellow at SSP,  and the director of the Seminar XXI Program.

Greenhill received her PhD from the MIT Department of Political Science in 2004 and is a member of SSP.

 “The impact of Art’s leadership of the Program—for the faculty and for the program’s participants—will long endure.  He leaves Seminar XXI in a strong position for continued success, and all of us at the MIT Center for International Studies thank him for his dedication and service to this most impactful of our many programs,” said Richard Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science, director of CIS, and a member of the Seminar XXI executive board.


Sara Plana receives the inaugural Jeanne Guillemin Prize

Michelle English | CIS 

Headshot of Sara Plana

Sara Plana is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and a student at the Security Studies Program (SSP)

If we can better understand the causes and consequences of war, then we can contribute to its prevention.

That is the guiding philosophy of faculty and students at the Security Studies Program (SSP), explains Sara Plana, a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science.

Plana was recently named the inaugural recipient of the Jeanne Guillemin Prize at the Center for International Studies (CIS). The prize provides financial support to women studying international affairs and was endowed at CIS by the late Jeanne Guillemin. Guillemin, an authority on biological weapons, was a senior advisor at SSP.

Plana will apply the funds toward her dissertation research into the phenomenon of proxy warfare.

"There’s actually a lot of variation in the degree to which states are able to use their leverage over non-state proxy armed groups,” says Plana. “I'm trying to understand when states are able to use proxies as intended, and when they can't."

The proxy war in Syria is among her case studies. This multi-sided civil conflict, which began in 2011 and is ongoing, is among the deadliest wars of the 21st century.  A 2018 report by the World Bank estimated more than 400,000 deaths, 5 million people seeking refuge abroad, and over 6 million displaced internally.

"The question of whether states can or can’t control proxy groups has important implications for international peace and security,” explains Plana. “My project illuminates when states can motivate proxies to take risks, keep them from taking actions that could escalate a conflict, or prevent them from victimizing civilians."

The human cost of war

As the daughter of Cuban immigrants, Plana grew up understanding the ways that global politics is personal. Her grandparents and parents fled Cuba after the ascent of the regime of Fidel Castro and ultimately settled in South Florida.  

Plana's familial history is connected, if not intentionally, to her research agenda. 

“My family experienced the human cost of a war so I bring that ethos into what I do. I try to be objective and rigorous but also recognize that what I study has a very real human impact.” 

Plana graduated magna cum laude with an AB in government from Harvard University. Her undergraduate thesis on war crimes in the Bosnian civil war received the Thomas Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarly work.  

Jessica Blankshain, her thesis advisor—now an assistant professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College—suggested Plana continue on with her research. 

“I never thought a doctorate degree was possible,” says Plana. “But Jess and another of my faculty mentors, Dr Stephen Rosen, really inspired me to consider it. If it weren’t for their encouragement, I would not be where I am today.”  Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard.

Plana feels incredibly fortunate to be a part of the political science department and SSP community.

“SSP is really a unique offering among political science departments. It’s saturated with both faculty and students who work on international security topics but from a variety of angles. Everyone here is seeking knowledge, doing rigorous research, and applying it to real-world problems. This ethos extends beyond SSP and is manifested in every department, lab, and center at MIT.”

Helping women in the field

Like Guillemin, Plana is committed to helping support women pursuing careers in security studies—a field traditionally dominated by men.

She and Rachel Tecott, also a fifth-year doctoral candidate in political science at SSP, launched the Future Strategy Forum (FSF), a conference series amplifying the expertise of women scholars and practitioners in international security while creating opportunities for connection. 

FSF was inspired in part from earlier work by both Plana and Tecott as co-chairs of a working group, Women in International Politics and Security. Guillemin was instrumental in establishing this working group at CIS, which has proven effective in connecting women graduate students, fellows, and faculty in the greater Boston area. 

“I am truly humbled to be a recipient of the Jeanne Guillemin Prize. Jeanne was a model scholar and mentor, especially to women, and embodied the guiding ethos of SSP. I hope that my work can live up to her expectations.” 


Yukio Okamoto, Japanese diplomat and MIT research fellow, dies at 74


Headshot of Yukio Okamoto

Yukio Okamoto was a CIS Robert E Wilhelm Fellow in 2012 and a distinguished research fellow for the Center

The former special advisor to two Japanese prime ministers fostered US-Japan relations. The MIT News story where the article was first published is available here

Yukio Okamoto, a Japanese diplomat and fellow at MIT, died from Covid-19 on April 24 at the age of 74. The former special advisor to two prime ministers of Japan joined the Center for International Studies (CIS) in 2012 as a Robert E Wilhelm fellow and served as a distinguished research fellow at CIS until his death. 

"Yukio brought to MIT an unparalleled set of experiences on the world stage. A great loss of a great man—and friend of us all,” said Richard Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of CIS. 

Samuels said in an interview with Japan's media outlet NHK that Okamoto never stopped working vigorously for better understanding between the United States and Japan, and that he has never known anyone to be more committed to maintaining healthy bilateral relations than Okamoto was.

From 1968 to 1991, Okamoto was a career diplomat in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His overseas postings included stints in Paris at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and in the embassies in Cairo, Egypt, and Washington. He retired from the ministry in 1991 and established Okamoto Associates, a political and economic consultancy.

Post-retirement, Okamoto had served in a number of advisory positions. From 1996 to 1998, he was special advisor to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. From October 2001 to March 2003, he was special advisor to the cabinet. From March 2003 to March 2004, he was special advisor on Iraq to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Concurrent with the above last two posts, he was chair of the Prime Minister's Task Force on Foreign Relations. Until September 2008, he was a member of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's Study Group on Diplomacy.

Okamoto was an adjunct professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University as well as Tohoku University. He sat on the boards of directors of several multinational companies. He also served as the president of Shingen'eki Net, a nonprofit group for active seniors with 16,000 members. In addition, Okamoto wrote books on Japanese diplomacy and government and was a regular contributor to major newspapers and magazines. He was a well-known public speaker and a frequent guest on public affairs and news broadcasts.

While at MIT, Okamoto was an informal mentor to graduate students and a highly valued colleague to faculty and research staff. He worked with a study group from MIT and Harvard University to produce most of the text for a forthcoming memoir. The Center for International Studies will continue to work with his family and colleagues to bring this to fruition.

Okamoto also, during his MIT tenure, gave dozens of public presentations around the United States on topics related to US-Japan relations and to Asian international relations. He did all this while working vigorously behind the scenes to repair Japan’s relationship with China and to help those in need in northeastern Japan after the triple catastrophes of March 2011—the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. He also founded the Signal of Hope Fund, an initiative he established to assist the Tohoku fisheries industry recover from these disasters.


Africa takes on Covid-19 at MIT-sponsored hackathan 

Claude Grunitsky | True Africa

A screenshot of participants

A screenshot of participants

Ari Jacobovits, managing director of the MIT Africa program, helped organize a hackathon on Covid-19 with collectives from around the world—drawing from universities, industry, government, and NGOs, among others.  CIS research affiliate Claude Grunitsky covered the story here in his mutli-media publication True Africa. 

42% of people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $1.90 a day. As the pandemic slowly progresses throughout the continent, with most of the 35,000+ Covid-19 cases concentrated in North Africa and South Africa, a group of MIT students decided to host an “Africa Takes on Covid-19” challenge last weekend. It was the third in a series of MIT-led hackathons designed to create solutions to address critical needs during the Covid-19 crisis.

More than 200 participating teams were selected through the MIT Covid-19 Challenge application website, with collectives from around the world—drawing from universities, industry, government, and NGOs, among others—volunteering to help create tech driven solutions to address the most critical unmet needs caused by the Covid-19 outbreak across the continent.

Benjamin Boutboul, an MIT Sloan MBA who will be graduating next month was one of the hackathon’s main organizers. He told TRUE Africa why he took on such a big challenge, and how he managed to make it happen in a couple of weeks. “Having participated in the previous MIT Covid-19 Challenge called ‘Beat the Pandemic,’ which was mostly focused on domestic US issues, I was eager to re-create this experience and community to design solutions specifically targeted to Africa. With over 1,300 participants and 300 mentors from over 100 countries (including 44 from Africa), ‘Africa Takes on Covid-19’ was a huge success, and I cannot wait to see the participants take their ideas to action.”

In order to make it all happen over the May 1-3 weekend, Boutboul and his team of MIT student organizers leaned heavily on the global “MIT Africans” WhatsApp group, but they also tapped into personal networks and relationships that organizers had with friends and associates at other universities, companies, and institutions that care about fighting Covid-19 in Africa.

Halle Rubera, a 2019 graduate of Wellesley College, is from Nairobi. Currently working for an education non-profit in East Africa, she chose to compete in the “Enabling Work and Supporting Livelihoods” track. Her motivation was clear. “I was eager to collaborate with engineers, public policy, health and fintech experts,” she wrote in the Slack channel that was dedicated to participants.

Another participant, who goes by Noya, is a student at Harvard. “I have seen how the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out in India and the USA,” she wrote, “I am quite concerned as to what may happen to Africa, if the best of care is not taken. I have a huge interest in education, especially medical education and training, being an entrepreneur in this area. In the last MIT Covid-19 pandemic hackathon I had formed a team with the title ‘Lightning Knowledge Sharing’ because I wanted information out to everybody instantly.”

Mooketsi Bennedict Tekere is a serial tech entrepreneur based in Gaborone, Botswana. The “Africa Takes on Covid-19” hackathon, which took place on Zoom, was promoted mostly via WhatsApp, but as soon as it went live in the morning of May 1st, the hackathon’s Slack channels started serving as a professional network for some participants. Tekere said he was “looking at partnering with data-driven technology startups in East Africa and Southern Africa.”

Participant Rakesh Gohel, the Canadian co-founder of JUTEQ Inc, which builds software solutions for public and private organizations, said that this was his third challenge aiming at helping people who have been impacted by Covid-19. His team created a pan-Canadian voice and text automated chatbot for self-assessment flow, updates and tips for isolation and prevention. He chose to compete in the “Strengthening Referral Systems” track.

Genevieve Mbama, who lives and works in Nigeria as the founder and CEO of Novedad Insights & Solutions, a start-up providing digital technology, business solutions and consulting services, received her MBA in 2010 as an MIT Sloan Fellow. She opted for the “Getting Patient Samples to Labs for Analysis” track, because she was “hoping to contribute to completing the cycle that goes from getting and sending samples to recording test results to communicating and accessing those test results.”

For Eleanor Thompson, a public interest lawyer, and her teammate Dr Yakama Jones, it was their first time participating in a hackathon. Their team, which is based in Sierra Leone, proposed a system for making continued access to essential goods easier and safer. Relying on the USSD protocol, as well as on SMS, Interactive Voice Response, traditional media and community structures, the idea behind their project is to identify and report price hiking and abuse by traders and delivery persons.

From the start, the judges were very clear on the evaluation criteria. Presenting teams were told to focus on demonstrating that their solution was strong on impact, innovation, implementation and presentation. Mentors were identified throughout the broader MIT ecosystem and beyond. Participants were also able to sign up for pitch practices, so long as they did it via a Google sheet.

Aminana Kane, the CEO of Orange Sierra Leone who received her MBA from MIT Sloan in 2013, was a judge on the “Reducing Community Transmission” track. Soon after the 30 winners—three for each of the ten tracks—were announced ahead of the prize presentations in the afternoon of Sunday, May 3rd, we interviewed her via email.

“I’ve just concluded two plus hours of listening to pitches,” she said. “It was fascinating to see how the teams came up with concrete ideas in such a short amount of time. I found the overall level of proposals very good, as people understood the constraints of the continent, and crafted solutions that were scalable. Though there was an over-representation of app ideas, some of the top teams thought about combining basic products and tech to solve issues.”

Ali Diallo, the former global programs manager at the MIT Legatum Center who is now CEO at UNITED, was a judge on the “Combating Misinformation” track. That track was considered important because of the misinformation on the causes and management of Covid-19 globally. Some people have come to think that the disease is altogether not real, threatening necessary preparedness and response mechanisms. Identifying solutions that can be deployed to get people the helpful accurate information they need has become crucial.

Diallo said he gave a lot of his time over the weekend because of some words that MIT President L Rafael Reif famously said: “The world counts on MIT to help invent the future.” Diallo feels that the hackathon proved that MIT is counting on Africa to help invent the future and that the continent has responded in a beautiful way. “The Covid-19 challenge has been a unique opportunity to discover practical applications of high-impact innovations,” he added. “Contributing to this challenge as a judge was a truly inspiring experience and I got to meet so many great entrepreneurs who believe in the power of innovation.”

Perhaps one of the strongest messages from this hackathon came from keynote speaker Dr David Moinina Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education. A Harvard graduate in engineering sciences, Sengeh received his PhD in the biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab in 2016. He has helped the Sierra Leone government perfect the use of drones for surveillance in monitoring movements during lockdown, and he mentioned that innovators should build solutions with the assumption that government will collaborate.

“It’s really important to build for state of the art without making assumptions about where Africa is or what is possible in Africa,” he said. “If it’s an app, build for an app; if you’re building for SMS, build for SMS; if you’re building for USSD, build for USSD. Remember that a good design principle for state of the art is to build hybrid systems, so your app should work on the web, it should work on mobile, USSD and SMS.”

Covid-19 pandemic insights from iGEM Biosecurity Policy Conference 

Ronit Langer | IGEM 2020 Ambassador Program Coordinator

Students and experts from the iGEM Community at the After iGEM Biosecurity Policy Conference

Students and experts from the iGEM Community at the After iGEM Biosecurity Policy Conference

Ronit Langer graduated from MIT in February 2020 with a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She is the iGEM 2020 Ambassador Program Coordinator and an inaugural fellow of the Human Rights and Technology Program at CIS. Her work organizing this conference was supported in part by this fellowship at CIS.  The iGEM Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration. This article first appeared here


Welcome to Atlanta, Georgia–the home of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You are a member of the Emergency Response and Recovery Board. You have been called to this meeting because the CDC has received a troubling report from the US Department of Agriculture that an engineered virus has been detected in a population of field mice outside of Savannah, Georgia.”

This was the situation presented to the students, advisors, academics and policy experts attending the After iGEM Biosecurity Policy Conference that took place on November 5th, 2019 at MIT’s Walker Memorial. The crisis was completely fictional, but the responses necessary for developing clear containment and communication strategies to address that crisis were real. And the insights, knowledge and training shared at that conference are prescient as we face the global COVID-19 pandemic today.

The vision for this conference was guided by three goals: connection, consciousness and community. 

First, we wanted to create a space for students, advisors, academics, and policy experts to have meaningful discussions around biosecurity policy. In particular, we wanted to focus on dual use research, the role of regulation at the local, national and international level, and how to think about the security of emerging biotechnologies.

Second, we wanted to alert participants to the issues that are critical today. The world is innovating rapidly and we need to ensure that this innovation continues in a safe, secure and effective framework. We wanted to bring these issues to the forefront of their minds today, so that those issues would be in the back of their minds throughout their scientific journeys.

Finally, we want participants to recognize that they are part of a larger community that includes not only themselves, but also mentors, regulators, policy experts and the general public who all have a stake in making sure that biotechnology and synthetic biology flourish and stay secure.

The conference was opened to everyone at no cost, and participants came from all over the world – ranging from local MIT students to iGEMers from Egypt and Indonesia. Those sharing their expertise at the conference included faculty from the MIT Media Lab, leading members of iGEM’s Human Practices and Safety & Security committees, and policy experts from the United Nations Office of Disarmament, the CDC, and the US Department of Agriculture. The diversity at the conference allowed for many creative solutions to the daunting task at hand – orchestrating a global, collective response to a simulated viral pathogen outbreak in real time.

Conference participants were briefed on the situation:

“The virus is related to the Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus, or RHDV, a virus that spreads rapidly in rabbits through direct contact. RHDV is notoriously hard to kill, and there are lengthy protocols online detailing how to decontaminate yourself of RHDV. This is the first time an RHDV-related virus has been seen in another mammal population, and it appears to be equally virulent in mice as it is in rabbits. The virus has clearly been engineered and its release appears accidental, but the engineers and their motives are currently unknown.

The folks over at the USDA believe the engineers of this virus may have been inspired by the 1991 initiative in Australia, when a group of Australian researchers was trying to control the rabbit pest population in Australia by importing RHDV. The result of that initiative was that the virus killed 10 million rabbits in the span of 8 weeks. We cannot allow our mice to share the same fate. Mice are a crucial part of the ecosystem and therefore containment is key in this situation. However, due to the resilient nature of the virus it is believed to be transmitted through direct contact with the plants in the field, as well as direct contact between mice. This transmission is extremely troubling because Georgia’s farmers are preparing to ship out their crops such as peanuts and peaches globally. Agriculture makes up almost 10% of Georgia’s GDP and losing the revenue from these crops could devastate the local economy.

The director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, is demanding that you bring him a containment plan within the next hour. Specifically, he needs two versions of the plan. One that addresses scientists at the USDA and the CDC about what they need to do next to stop this virus from spreading. The second version is addressed to national security officials from the US government. The main question they need answered right now is whether or not to let the crops be shipped, and if they were to go with quarantine, how large should the quarantine be? Just the farm? All of Georgia? They need your assessment of the threat level to make their decision. Additionally, you have reports that some of the information about the virus has been leaked to the press and news outlets are demanding a statement. If they do not hear from you soon, they will assume and print the worst. Once you have contained both the virus itself and the information about the virus, you will then be asked to turn over a list of recommendations about how to prevent these incidents moving forward.”

The Collective Response

Conference participants were divided into teams of students and policy experts who considered what to do in the face of the challenge posed. The teams spent two hours asking questions about the origin of the virus, the rate of its’ spread, and the authority of the CDC and other regulatory groups. Their questioning lead to meaningful discussions about how to address a crisis with so many unknowns. At the end of the two hours, each team reported on their findings.

Three issues were identified by each of the teams–the need for sampling to understand the scope of the problem, the need for containment so that the virus would not spread globally, and the need for clear communication so that the problem was clearly understood by all relevant parties. The fact every team identified these three issues highlights their importance in addressing a global biological threat.

Interestingly, each team also focused on a different piece of the puzzle. One team mainly focused on media coverage and drafted an example press release for the White House. Another team wanted to deeply understand the science of the virus and focused on the lab protocols that would be needed for diagnosis and monitoring of the viral outbreak. Yet another team focused on the regulations that would need to be in place were an accidental release of a genetically engineered virus to actually occur. The diversity of each team’s focus illustrates the need for the many styles of thinking and types of backgrounds that can be applied in developing creative and effective solutions to such a challenge.

Then and now

I am struck by the parallels between the findings of the After iGEM Biosecurity Policy Conference last November and the actions of scientists and policy makers across the world in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic today. The three issues identified by our teams – scope, containment, and communication – are the same three issues that scientists and policy makers must address in developing effective ways to mitigate harm from the COVID-19 pandemic. And many people with different thinking styles and backgrounds are applying their knowledge and skills in developing creative and effective solutions.

Now that the iGEM 2020 season is unfolding amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the iGEM community continues to demonstrate leadership in providing guidance for safe and responsible innovation and flexibility in accommodating the needs of iGEM teams. I am honored and humbled to be a part of the iGEM community, and I have confidence in the new generation of scientists who are developing the technologies and tools of synthetic biology and also addressing the human practices, safety & security, and policy considerations for engineering biological solutions to global challenges.

Please contact Ronit[AT]igem[DOT]org if you have any questions or would like to run this simulation in your own lab or group.