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Katalin Karikó, the pioneering scientists behind COVID-19 vaccines Awarded

Rosenstiel Award given to pioneering scientists behind COVID-19 vaccines

This year’s prize for distinguished work in basic medical research was awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for work on messenger RNA.

Katalin Karikó and Drew WeissmanCourtesy Karikó/University of Pennsylvania

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman

Brandeis University and the Rosenstiel Foundation are pleased to award the 50th annual Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman ’81, MA ’81, P’15, for their groundbreaking work in the modification of nucleic acids to develop RNA therapeutics and vaccines.

Karikó, senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, and Weissman, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, pioneered much of the science underlying two of the COVID-19 vaccines now being given to tens of millions of people across the globe. 

Rosenstiel Medal

The Rosenstiel Award

By engineering a modified version of the messenger RNA (mRNA) inside human cells and then developing a system to deliver it to its target, the two researchers laid the groundwork for the vaccines brought to fruition by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna

“This award celebrates how basic research in molecular biology can be the foundation for applications that can affect the lives of us all,” said James Haber, the Abraham and Etta Goodman Professor of Biology and director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center.

“Through their painstaking research into mRNA – and persistence despite setbacks – Weissman and Karikó laid the groundwork for vaccines that will save countless lives.”

Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience and 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Michael Rosbash said: 

“Among the few positive consequences of the current pandemic are the successful efforts made worldwide to generate effective vaccines. The most creative of these rely on the new messenger RNA technology pioneered by Kariko and Weissman. This is a great story where individual initiative in basic science has ended up having a remarkable real-world impact.”

The Rosenstiel Award has had a distinguished record of identifying and honoring scientists who subsequently have been honored with the Lasker and Nobel Prizes. Thirty-six of 93 Rosenstiel Award winners have subsequently been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology or in Chemistry. 

A full list of awardees can be found on the award’s website.

The award will be presented on February 8 at 12 p.m. via webinar. Register for the event here.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Derrick Rossi, co-founder of Moderna, will present congratulatory remarks. 

Karikó and Weissman began working together over 20 years ago when both were at U Penn. 

At the time, many scientists didn’t believe mRNA, which transport instructions from DNA to the ribosomes for the production of proteins, could be the basis for a vaccine. In experiments, injecting mRNA into mice caused deadly inflammation.

But Karikó and Weissman pressed on, discovering a method of altering mRNA that enabled it to enter cells without triggering the body’s immune system. They did this by tweaking one of the four nucleosides that are the building blocks of mRNA. 

Several years later, Karikó and Weissman devised a method of packaging mRNA inside a lipid nanoparticle — a small bubble of oil — so that the molecule didn’t fall apart as it traveled through the body. 

“We basically tested every possible delivery system and found this was the best,” Weissman recently told BrandeisNOW.

The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines work by spurring human cells to produce the spike-shaped protein found on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the illness, and triggering the immune system to produce protective antibodies.

In general, mRNA vaccines have the advantage of being cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines for chickenpox, polio, flu or rabies. It’s also hoped they can be adapted to treat other infectious diseases such as genital herpes (which is caused by the herpes simplex virus), influenza, Zika and HIV.

“The COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough is a great example of how basic science innovations, such as the RNA technology pioneered by Weissman and Karikó, can have an enormous impact on advances in the biomedical sciences,” said biochemist Carol Fierke, the university’s new provost and executive vice president.

In addition to her post at BioNTech, Karikó is an adjunct associate professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Weissman is also director of vaccine research at the Perelman school’s division of infectious diseases.

Categories: AlumniScience and Technology

Mindless US Academic Career System Almost Killed off the Virus Vaccine

How Our Brutal Science System Almost Cost Us A Pioneer Of mRNA Vaccines

 
Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Lately, my social media feeds have been filled with “vaxxies” — selfies of health care friends getting COVID-19 vaccines and gushing about how the shots brought them hope or relief. Many express gratitude for the science that yielded the vaccines.

When I got my own shot — after working the chaotic first surge at an understaffed hospital in March and April — I felt an added emotion: awe.

When can I get a vaccine? Is it safe? What are the side effects? Get this info & more in your inbox each week. Sign up now.

You see, I witnessed some of the early scientific heartbreaks that came before the historic vaccine victories. And I found myself simply awestruck by the scientists I knew who persevered in spite of our system of scientific research.

The system helped lead to progress, but it also demoralized a junior researcher to the point that anyone of less grit and determination would have just given up long before the groundwork for today’s vaccines was laid.

An Existential Career Threat

Here’s my story: 20 years ago, I worked part-time in a tumble-down laboratory in a dusty corner of an old medical school building at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was an undergrad. For three years, I studied HIV replication in T-cells under researchers Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó.

These days, they are coronavirus vaccine heroes, but back then, their very early work on mRNA vaccines aimed to fight HIV. After spending my first four months in the lab on an experiment that never worked, I learned that good science is really, really hard.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I also absorbed what I later could describe as the sociology of science — how the sausage is made — and it wasn’t always pretty.

From the photo album of author David Scales (second from right), the 2001 lab team that included Katalin Karikó (third from left.)
From the photo album of author David Scales (second from right), the 2001 lab team that included Katalin Karikó (third from left.)

While Weissman was an expert at designing experiments, I remember him most for his generosity. He made sure all contributors in the lab shared the credit, from the lab tech and lowly undergrad all the way to fellow researcher Karikó.

Still, Karikó was struggling. Her science was fantastic, but she was less adept at the competitive game of science. She tried again and again to win grants, and each time, her applications were rejected.

Eventually, in the mid-1990s, she suffered the academic indignity of demotion, meaning she was taken off the academic ladder that leads to becoming a professor. We never discussed it personally because by the time I joined the lab, Karikó’s history was still only discussed in hushed tones as a cautionary tale for young scientists.

I learned that while universities pay the salaries of many of their professors in English or anthropology, they expect faculty in the medical schools to pay their own way with either clinical work or external research funding. This puts tremendous financial pressure on eager young medical researchers, sometimes leading them not to the projects that are most needed or that they are most passionate about, but to the projects that will get them funding.

Karikó lived that nightmare, but stuck to her passions. She was too committed to the promise of mRNA to switch to other, perhaps more easily fundable projects. Eventually, the university stopped supporting her.

It’s hard to describe what this moment means to people who have never worked in science at a university, but it is more than the frustration of an experiment not working or laudable work going unrecognized. It is an existential career threat. Everything you have worked for your entire life is suddenly in jeopardy. It is a forced career change on the assumption that if you can’t get the grants, you’re not a good enough scientist.

Clearly, this was a false assumption in Karikó’s case. She was a dynamo, with a passion for science that rubbed off on those around her. I remember one lab meeting where she arrived with a copy of Science or Nature magazine, absorbed in a new study that showed some cool biological feature of how cells reacted under stress. It wasn’t her area of research, yet she was still in awe of the beauty and intricacy our cells are imbued with, and her enthusiasm was infectious.

A Scientist To Her Core

She also shared jaw-dropping anecdotes about working as a scientist in the Eastern Bloc, from the cutthroat competition in school to the practice of smoking cigarettes in the lab (except when someone opened a container of very flammable ether).

For Karikó, who had persevered under those extraordinarily difficult circumstances in communist Hungary, demotion was particularly bitter. Most people in such circumstances end up leaving the university, but she pressed on.

I think she had to. Mark Doty, a poet, visited and gave a talk my senior year at Penn. Afterwards, a student and aspiring poet asked when and how Doty knew he was willing to endure the sacrifices it took to be a poet, with all the rejections, the financial struggle and the economic instability.

Doty said that he couldn’t not be a poet. He tried other things and just wasn’t happy. For him, it wasn’t a choice. Seeing Karikó get so excited about scientific findings that weren’t even related to her research, I got a similar sense about her too: she couldn’t not be a scientist. It was baked into her bones. Luckily for us, now.

It’s the secret you don’t learn in school. We know doing good science is hard. But it isn’t only difficult because divining nature’s secrets is a unique challenge. It is unbelievably, brutally difficult for all of the other non-science skills that are needed but not explicitly taught: writing grants (“grantsmanship”), getting invited to speak at conferences, building collaborative research relationships, having the political awareness to attract allies and mentors within a department or university who can help find support for you.

It’s the sociology of doing science at a university that makes science even harder than it already is. Usually, stories like Karikó’s end in obscurity and disappointment. Add in being a woman and an immigrant, and it makes her perseverance even more inspiring.

You Were Right, Kati

For me, seeing such an impressive mentor struggle so hard acted as a powerful push away from doing science. I spent a year abroad studying history and philosophy of science, learning the social processes by which scientific facts become solidified, then studied medicine and sociology.

But lately, I have found myself drawn back to science, as empirical facts are dismissed with a tweet. If anything, the problems Karikó faced have gotten worse over the past 20 years. It is high time for scientists to save science. But, at its best, science can produce beauty, wonder and, occasionally, through the hard work of very dedicated individuals, it can produce technologies that save millions of lives.

The coronavirus vaccine has demonstrated that we need good science – and good scientists – now more than ever. And we need to make sure that they stay in science, one way or another.

Academic science failed Karikó. But when she contacted me in 2015, I saw she had moved to the private sector, a common path for researchers when a university stops offering support. I was glad to see she had landed on her feet. And now, I watch in awe, like the rest of the world, as the technology she helped developed leads to one of the most spectacular victories in the history of science – a vaccine for a deadly pandemic developed in less than one year.

So, my vaccination day was an emotional one. As the lipid-encapsulated mRNA molecules went into my arm, I reminisced about Kati and Drew, and the lab circa 2000. And I thought: You were right, Kati. You were right.

The recent "vaxxie" of author David Scales (courtesy David Scales).
The recent “vaxxie” of author David Scales (courtesy David Scales).

Dr. David Scales is a physician and assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. He can be found on Twitter @davidascales. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Weill Cornell Medical College.

Mindless US Academic Career System Almost Killed off the Virus Vaccine

How Our Brutal Science System Almost Cost Us A Pioneer Of mRNA Vaccines

 
Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Lately, my social media feeds have been filled with “vaxxies” — selfies of health care friends getting COVID-19 vaccines and gushing about how the shots brought them hope or relief. Many express gratitude for the science that yielded the vaccines.

When I got my own shot — after working the chaotic first surge at an understaffed hospital in March and April — I felt an added emotion: awe.

When can I get a vaccine? Is it safe? What are the side effects? Get this info & more in your inbox each week. Sign up now.

You see, I witnessed some of the early scientific heartbreaks that came before the historic vaccine victories. And I found myself simply awestruck by the scientists I knew who persevered in spite of our system of scientific research.

The system helped lead to progress, but it also demoralized a junior researcher to the point that anyone of less grit and determination would have just given up long before the groundwork for today’s vaccines was laid.

An Existential Career Threat

Here’s my story: 20 years ago, I worked part-time in a tumble-down laboratory in a dusty corner of an old medical school building at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was an undergrad. For three years, I studied HIV replication in T-cells under researchers Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó.

These days, they are coronavirus vaccine heroes, but back then, their very early work on mRNA vaccines aimed to fight HIV. After spending my first four months in the lab on an experiment that never worked, I learned that good science is really, really hard.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I also absorbed what I later could describe as the sociology of science — how the sausage is made — and it wasn’t always pretty.

From the photo album of author David Scales (second from right), the 2001 lab team that included Katalin Karikó (third from left.)
From the photo album of author David Scales (second from right), the 2001 lab team that included Katalin Karikó (third from left.)

While Weissman was an expert at designing experiments, I remember him most for his generosity. He made sure all contributors in the lab shared the credit, from the lab tech and lowly undergrad all the way to fellow researcher Karikó.

Still, Karikó was struggling. Her science was fantastic, but she was less adept at the competitive game of science. She tried again and again to win grants, and each time, her applications were rejected.

Eventually, in the mid-1990s, she suffered the academic indignity of demotion, meaning she was taken off the academic ladder that leads to becoming a professor. We never discussed it personally because by the time I joined the lab, Karikó’s history was still only discussed in hushed tones as a cautionary tale for young scientists.

I learned that while universities pay the salaries of many of their professors in English or anthropology, they expect faculty in the medical schools to pay their own way with either clinical work or external research funding. This puts tremendous financial pressure on eager young medical researchers, sometimes leading them not to the projects that are most needed or that they are most passionate about, but to the projects that will get them funding.

Karikó lived that nightmare, but stuck to her passions. She was too committed to the promise of mRNA to switch to other, perhaps more easily fundable projects. Eventually, the university stopped supporting her.

It’s hard to describe what this moment means to people who have never worked in science at a university, but it is more than the frustration of an experiment not working or laudable work going unrecognized. It is an existential career threat. Everything you have worked for your entire life is suddenly in jeopardy. It is a forced career change on the assumption that if you can’t get the grants, you’re not a good enough scientist.

Clearly, this was a false assumption in Karikó’s case. She was a dynamo, with a passion for science that rubbed off on those around her. I remember one lab meeting where she arrived with a copy of Science or Nature magazine, absorbed in a new study that showed some cool biological feature of how cells reacted under stress. It wasn’t her area of research, yet she was still in awe of the beauty and intricacy our cells are imbued with, and her enthusiasm was infectious.

A Scientist To Her Core

She also shared jaw-dropping anecdotes about working as a scientist in the Eastern Bloc, from the cutthroat competition in school to the practice of smoking cigarettes in the lab (except when someone opened a container of very flammable ether).

For Karikó, who had persevered under those extraordinarily difficult circumstances in communist Hungary, demotion was particularly bitter. Most people in such circumstances end up leaving the university, but she pressed on.

I think she had to. Mark Doty, a poet, visited and gave a talk my senior year at Penn. Afterwards, a student and aspiring poet asked when and how Doty knew he was willing to endure the sacrifices it took to be a poet, with all the rejections, the financial struggle and the economic instability.

Doty said that he couldn’t not be a poet. He tried other things and just wasn’t happy. For him, it wasn’t a choice. Seeing Karikó get so excited about scientific findings that weren’t even related to her research, I got a similar sense about her too: she couldn’t not be a scientist. It was baked into her bones. Luckily for us, now.

It’s the secret you don’t learn in school. We know doing good science is hard. But it isn’t only difficult because divining nature’s secrets is a unique challenge. It is unbelievably, brutally difficult for all of the other non-science skills that are needed but not explicitly taught: writing grants (“grantsmanship”), getting invited to speak at conferences, building collaborative research relationships, having the political awareness to attract allies and mentors within a department or university who can help find support for you.

It’s the sociology of doing science at a university that makes science even harder than it already is. Usually, stories like Karikó’s end in obscurity and disappointment. Add in being a woman and an immigrant, and it makes her perseverance even more inspiring.

You Were Right, Kati

For me, seeing such an impressive mentor struggle so hard acted as a powerful push away from doing science. I spent a year abroad studying history and philosophy of science, learning the social processes by which scientific facts become solidified, then studied medicine and sociology.

But lately, I have found myself drawn back to science, as empirical facts are dismissed with a tweet. If anything, the problems Karikó faced have gotten worse over the past 20 years. It is high time for scientists to save science. But, at its best, science can produce beauty, wonder and, occasionally, through the hard work of very dedicated individuals, it can produce technologies that save millions of lives.

The coronavirus vaccine has demonstrated that we need good science – and good scientists – now more than ever. And we need to make sure that they stay in science, one way or another.

Academic science failed Karikó. But when she contacted me in 2015, I saw she had moved to the private sector, a common path for researchers when a university stops offering support. I was glad to see she had landed on her feet. And now, I watch in awe, like the rest of the world, as the technology she helped developed leads to one of the most spectacular victories in the history of science – a vaccine for a deadly pandemic developed in less than one year.

So, my vaccination day was an emotional one. As the lipid-encapsulated mRNA molecules went into my arm, I reminisced about Kati and Drew, and the lab circa 2000. And I thought: You were right, Kati. You were right.

The recent "vaxxie" of author David Scales (courtesy David Scales).
The recent “vaxxie” of author David Scales (courtesy David Scales).

Dr. David Scales is a physician and assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. He can be found on Twitter @davidascales. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Weill Cornell Medical College.

The story of mRNA. And The Story of a Professor Who was Demoted by Idiotic Bosses

ANDOVER, Mass. — The liquid that many hope could help end the Covid-19 pandemic is stored in a nondescript metal tank in a manufacturing complex owned by Pfizer, one of the world’s biggest drug companies. There is nothing remarkable about the container, which could fit in a walk-in closet, except that its contents could end up in the world’s first authorized Covid-19 vaccine.

Pfizer, a 171-year-old Fortune 500 powerhouse, has made a billion-dollar bet on that dream. So has a brash, young rival just 23 miles away in Cambridge, Mass. Moderna, a 10-year-old biotech company with billions in market valuation but no approved products, is racing forward with a vaccine of its own. Its new sprawling drug-making facility nearby is hiring workers at a fast clip in the hopes of making history — and a lot of money.

In many ways, the companies and their leaders couldn’t be more different. Pfizer, working with a little-known German biotech called BioNTech, has taken pains for much of the year to manage expectations. Moderna has made nearly as much news for its stream of upbeat press releases, executives’ stock sales, and spectacular rounds of funding as for its science.

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Each is well-aware of the other in the race to be first.

But what the companies share may be bigger than their differences: Both are banking on a genetic technology that has long held huge promise but has so far run into biological roadblocks. It is called synthetic messenger RNA, an ingenious variation on the natural substance that directs protein production in cells throughout the body. Its prospects have swung billions of dollars on the stock market, made and imperiled scientific careers, and fueled hopes that it could be a breakthrough that allows society to return to normalcy after months living in fear.

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Both companies have been frequently name-checked by President Trump. Pfizer reported strong, but preliminary, data on Monday, and Moderna is expected to follow suit soon with a glimpse of its data. Both firms hope these preliminary results will allow an emergency deployment of their vaccines — millions of doses likely targeted to frontline medical workers and others most at risk of Covid-19.

There are about a dozen experimental vaccines in late-stage clinical trials globally, but the ones being tested by Pfizer and Moderna are the only two that rely on messenger RNA.

For decades, scientists have dreamed about the seemingly endless possibilities of custom-made messenger RNA, or mRNA.

Researchers understood its role as a recipe book for the body’s trillions of cells, but their efforts to expand the menu have come in fits and starts. The concept: By making precise tweaks to synthetic mRNA and injecting people with it, any cell in the body could be transformed into an on-demand drug factory.

But turning scientific promise into medical reality has been more difficult than many assumed. Although relatively easy and quick to produce compared to traditional vaccine-making, no mRNA vaccine or drug has ever won approval.

Even now, as Moderna and Pfizer test their vaccines on roughly 74,000 volunteers in pivotal vaccine studies, many experts question whether the technology is ready for prime time.

“I worry about innovation at the expense of practicality,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and an authority on vaccines, said recently. The U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program, which has underwritten the development of Moderna’s vaccine and pledged to buy Pfizer’s vaccine if it works, is “weighted toward technology platforms that have never made it to licensure before.”

Whether mRNA vaccines succeed or not, their path from a gleam in a scientist’s eye to the brink of government approval has been a tale of personal perseverance, eureka moments in the lab, soaring expectations — and an unprecedented flow of cash into the biotech industry.

It is a story that began three decades ago, with a little-known scientist who refused to quit.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Scientists can now design genetic material called mRNA to help us build immunity to certain viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.HYACINTH EMPINADO/STAT

Before messenger RNA was a multibillion-dollar idea, it was a scientific backwater. And for the Hungarian-born scientist behind a key mRNA discovery, it was a career dead-end.

Katalin Karikó spent the 1990s collecting rejections. Her work, attempting to harness the power of mRNA to fight disease, was too far-fetched for government grants, corporate funding, and even support from her own colleagues.

It all made sense on paper. In the natural world, the body relies on millions of tiny proteins to keep itself alive and healthy, and it uses mRNA to tell cells which proteins to make. If you could design your own mRNA, you could, in theory, hijack that process and create any protein you might desire — antibodies to vaccinate against infection, enzymes to reverse a rare disease, or growth agents to mend damaged heart tissue.

In 1990, researchers at the University of Wisconsin managed to make it work in mice. Karikó wanted to go further.

The problem, she knew, was that synthetic RNA was notoriously vulnerable to the body’s natural defenses, meaning it would likely be destroyed before reaching its target cells. And, worse, the resulting biological havoc might stir up an immune response that could make the therapy a health risk for some patients.

It was a real obstacle, and still may be, but Karikó was convinced it was one she could work around. Few shared her confidence.

“Every night I was working: grant, grant, grant,” Karikó remembered, referring to her efforts to obtain funding. “And it came back always no, no, no.”

By 1995, after six years on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She had been on the path to full professorship, but with no money coming in to support her work on mRNA, her bosses saw no point in pressing on.

She was back to the lower rungs of the scientific academy.

“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” Karikó said.

There’s no opportune time for demotion, but 1995 had already been uncommonly difficult. Karikó had recently endured a cancer scare, and her husband was stuck in Hungary sorting out a visa issue. Now the work to which she’d devoted countless hours was slipping through her fingers.

“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó said. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”

Katalin Kariko
Katalin Karikó, a senior vice president at BioNTech overseeing its mRNA work, in her home office in Rydal, Penn.JESSICA KOURKOUNIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

In time, those better experiments came together. After a decade of trial and error, Karikó and her longtime collaborator at Penn — Drew Weissman, an immunologist with a medical degree and Ph.D. from Boston University — discovered a remedy for mRNA’s Achilles’ heel.

The stumbling block, as Karikó’s many grant rejections pointed out, was that injecting synthetic mRNA typically led to that vexing immune response; the body sensed a chemical intruder, and went to war. The solution, Karikó and Weissman discovered, was the biological equivalent of swapping out a tire.

Every strand of mRNA is made up of four molecular building blocks called nucleosides. But in its altered, synthetic form, one of those building blocks, like a misaligned wheel on a car, was throwing everything off by signaling the immune system. So Karikó and Weissman simply subbed it out for a slightly tweaked version, creating a hybrid mRNA that could sneak its way into cells without alerting the body’s defenses.

“That was a key discovery,” said Norbert Pardi, an assistant professor of medicine at Penn and frequent collaborator. “Karikó and Weissman figured out that if you incorporate modified nucleosides into mRNA, you can kill two birds with one stone.”

That discovery, described in a series of scientific papers starting in 2005, largely flew under the radar at first, said Weissman, but it offered absolution to the mRNA researchers who had kept the faith during the technology’s lean years. And it was the starter pistol for the vaccine sprint to come.

And even though the studies by Karikó and Weissman went unnoticed by some, they caught the attention of two key scientists — one in the United States, another abroad — who would later help found Moderna and Pfizer’s future partner, BioNTech.

Derrick Rossi, a native of Toronto who rooted for the Maple Leafs and sported a soul patch, was a 39-year-old postdoctoral fellow in stem cell biology at Stanford University in 2005 when he read the first paper. Not only did he recognize it as groundbreaking, he now says Karikó and Weissman deserve the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

“If anyone asks me whom to vote for some day down the line, I would put them front and center,” he said. “That fundamental discovery is going to go into medicines that help the world.”

Derrick Rossi one of the founders of Moderna
Derrick Rossi, one of the founders of Moderna, in his Newton, Mass., home. He ended his affiliation with the company in 2014.SUZANNE KREITER/THE BOSTON GLOBE

But Rossi didn’t have vaccines on his mind when he set out to build on their findings in 2007 as a new assistant professor at Harvard Medical School running his own lab.

He wondered whether modified messenger RNA might hold the key to obtaining something else researchers desperately wanted: a new source of embryonic stem cells.

In a feat of biological alchemy, embryonic stem cells can turn into any type of cell in the body. That gives them the potential to treat a dizzying array of conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to spinal cord injuries.

But using those cells for research had created an ethical firestorm because they are harvested from discarded embryos.

Rossi thought he might be able to sidestep the controversy. He would use modified messenger molecules to reprogram adult cells so that they acted like embryonic stem cells.

He asked a postdoctoral fellow in his lab to explore the idea. In 2009, after more than a year of work, the postdoc waved Rossi over to a microscope. Rossi peered through the lens and saw something extraordinary: a plate full of the very cells he had hoped to create.

Rossi excitedly informed his colleague Timothy Springer, another professor at Harvard Medical School and a biotech entrepreneur. Recognizing the commercial potential, Springer contacted Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and biomedical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On a May afternoon in 2010, Rossi and Springer visited Langer at his laboratory in Cambridge. What happened at the two-hour meeting and in the days that followed has become the stuff of legend — and an ego-bruising squabble.

Langer is a towering figure in biotechnology and an expert on drug-delivery technology. At least 400 drug and medical device companies have licensed his patents. His office walls display many of his 250 major awards, including the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers.

As he listened to Rossi describe his use of modified mRNA, Langer recalled, he realized the young professor had discovered something far bigger than a novel way to create stem cells. Cloaking mRNA so it could slip into cells to produce proteins had a staggering number of applications, Langer thought, and might even save millions of lives.

“I think you can do a lot better than that,” Langer recalled telling Rossi, referring to stem cells. “I think you could make new drugs, new vaccines — everything.”

Langer could barely contain his excitement when he got home to his wife.

“This could be the most successful company in history,” he remembered telling her, even though no company existed yet.

Three days later Rossi made another presentation, to the leaders of Flagship Ventures. Founded and run by Noubar Afeyan, a swaggering entrepreneur, the Cambridge venture capital firm has created dozens of biotech startups. Afeyan had the same enthusiastic reaction as Langer, saying in a 2015 article in Nature that Rossi’s innovation “was intriguing instantaneously.”

Within several months, Rossi, Langer, Afeyan, and another physician-researcher at Harvard formed the firm Moderna — a new word combining modified and RNA.

Springer was the first investor to pledge money, Rossi said. In a 2012 Moderna news release, Afeyan said the firm’s “promise rivals that of the earliest biotechnology companies over 30 years ago — adding an entirely new drug category to the pharmaceutical arsenal.”

But although Moderna has made each of the founders hundreds of millions of dollars — even before the company had produced a single product — Rossi’s account is marked by bitterness. In interviews with the Globe in October, he accused Langer and Afeyan of propagating a condescending myth that he didn’t understand his discovery’s full potential until they pointed it out to him.

“It’s total malarkey,” said Rossi, who ended his affiliation with Moderna in 2014. “I’m embarrassed for them. Everybody in the know actually just shakes their heads.”

Rossi said that the slide decks he used in his presentation to Flagship noted that his discovery could lead to new medicines. “That’s the thing Noubar has used to turn Flagship into a big company, and he says it was totally his idea,” Rossi said.

Afeyan, the chair of Moderna, recently credited Rossi with advancing the work of the Penn scientists. But, he said, that only spurred Afeyan and Langer “to ask the question, ‘Could you think of a code molecule that helps you make anything you want within the body?’”

Langer, for his part, told STAT and the Globe that Rossi “made an important finding” but had focused almost entirely “on the stem cell thing.”

Robert Langer
Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and MIT biomedical engineering professor, is a Moderna co-founder.PAT GREENHOUSE/THE BOSTON GLOBE

Despite the squabbling that followed the birth of Moderna, other scientists also saw messenger RNA as potentially revolutionary.

In Mainz, Germany, situated on the left bank of the Rhine, another new company was being formed by a married team of researchers who would also see the vast potential for the technology, though vaccines for infectious diseases weren’t on top of their list then.

A native of Turkey, Ugur Sahin moved to Germany after his father got a job at a Ford factory in Cologne. His wife, Özlem Türeci had, as a child, followed her father, a surgeon, on his rounds at a Catholic hospital. She and Sahin are physicians who met in 1990 working at a hospital in Saarland.

The couple have long been interested in immunotherapy, which harnesses the immune system to fight cancer and has become one of the most exciting innovations in medicine in recent decades. In particular, they were tantalized by the possibility of creating personalized vaccines that teach the immune system to eliminate cancer cells.

Both see themselves as scientists first and foremost. But they are also formidable entrepreneurs. After they co-founded another biotech, the couple persuaded twin brothers who had invested in that firm, Thomas and Andreas Strungmann, to spin out a new company that would develop cancer vaccines that relied on mRNA.

That became BioNTech, another blended name, derived from Biopharmaceutical New Technologies. Its U.S. headquarters is in Cambridge. Sahin is the CEO, Türeci the chief medical officer.

“We are one of the leaders in messenger RNA, but we don’t consider ourselves a messenger RNA company,” said Sahin, also a professor at the Mainz University Medical Center. “We consider ourselves an immunotherapy company.”

Like Moderna, BioNTech licensed technology developed by the Pennsylvania scientist whose work was long ignored, Karikó, and her collaborator, Weissman. In fact, in 2013, the company hired Karikó as senior vice president to help oversee its mRNA work.

But in their early years, the two biotechs operated in very different ways.

In 2011, Moderna hired the CEO who would personify its brash approach to the business of biotech.

Stéphane Bancel was a rising star in the life sciences, a chemical engineer with a Harvard MBA who was known as a businessman, not a scientist. At just 34, he became CEO of the French diagnostics firm BioMérieux in 2007 but was wooed away to Moderna four years later by Afeyan.

Moderna made a splash in 2012 with the announcement that it had raised $40 million from venture capitalists despite being years away from testing its science in humans. Four months later, the British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca agreed to pay Moderna a staggering $240 million for the rights to dozens of mRNA drugs that did not yet exist.

Moderna
Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel at the company’s offices in Cambridge, Mass.ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR STAT

The biotech had no scientific publications to its name and hadn’t shared a shred of data publicly. Yet it somehow convinced investors and multinational drug makers that its scientific findings and expertise were destined to change the world. Under Bancel’s leadership, Moderna would raise more than $1 billion in investments and partnership funds over the next five years.

Moderna’s promise — and the more than $2 billion it raised before going public in 2018 — hinged on creating a fleet of mRNA medicines that could be safely dosed over and over. But behind the scenes the company’s scientists were running into a familiar problem. In animal studies, the ideal dose of their leading mRNA therapy was triggering dangerous immune reactions — the kind for which Karikó had improvised a major workaround under some conditions — but a lower dose had proved too weak to show any benefits.

Moderna had to pivot. If repeated doses of mRNA were too toxic to test in human beings, the company would have to rely on something that takes only one or two injections to show an effect. Gradually, biotech’s self-proclaimed disruptor became a vaccines company, putting its experimental drugs on the back burner and talking up the potential of a field long considered a loss-leader by the drug industry.

Meanwhile BioNTech has often acted like the anti-Moderna, garnering far less attention.

In part, that was by design, said Sahin. For the first five years, the firm operated in what Sahin called “submarine mode,” issuing no news releases, and focusing on scientific research, much of it originating in his university lab. Unlike Moderna, the firm has published its research from the start, including about 150 scientific papers in just the past eight years.

In 2013, the firm began disclosing its ambitions to transform the treatment of cancer and soon announced a series of eight partnerships with major drug makers. BioNTech has 13 compounds in clinical trials for a variety of illnesses but, like Moderna, has yet to get a product approved.

When BioNTech went public last October, it raised $150 million, and closed with a market value of $3.4 billion — less than half of Moderna’s when it went public in 2018.

Despite his role as CEO, Sahin has largely maintained the air of an academic. He still uses his university email address and rides a 20-year-old mountain bicycle from his home to the office because he doesn’t have a driver’s license.

Then, late last year, the world changed.

MODERNA - Norwood facility
Moderna’s facility in Norwood, Mass.ALEX HOGAN/STAT

Shortly before midnight, on Dec. 30, the International Society for Infectious Diseases, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, posted an alarming report online. A number of people in Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people in central China, had been diagnosed with “unexplained pneumonia.”

Chinese researchers soon identified 41 hospitalized patients with the disease. Most had visited the Wuhan South China Seafood Market. Vendors sold live wild animals, from bamboo rats to ostriches, in crowded stalls. That raised concerns that the virus might have leaped from an animal, possibly a bat, to humans.

After isolating the virus from patients, Chinese scientists on Jan. 10 posted online its genetic sequence. Because companies that work with messenger RNA don’t need the virus itself to create a vaccine, just a computer that tells scientists what chemicals to put together and in what order, researchers at Moderna, BioNTech, and other companies got to work.

A pandemic loomed. The companies’ focus on vaccines could not have been more fortuitous.

Moderna and BioNTech each designed a tiny snip of genetic code that could be deployed into cells to stimulate a coronavirus immune response. The two vaccines differ in their chemical structures, how the substances are made, and how they deliver mRNA into cells. Both vaccines require two shots a few weeks apart.

The biotechs were competing against dozens of other groups that employed varying vaccine-making approaches, including the traditional, more time-consuming method of using an inactivated virus to produce an immune response.

Moderna was especially well-positioned for this moment.

Forty-two days after the genetic code was released, Moderna’s CEO Bancel opened an email on Feb. 24 on his cellphone and smiled, as he recalled to the Globe. Up popped a photograph of a box placed inside a refrigerated truck at the Norwood plant and bound for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. The package held a few hundred vials, each containing the experimental vaccine.

Moderna was the first drug maker to deliver a potential vaccine for clinical trials. Soon, its vaccine became the first to undergo testing on humans, in a small early-stage trial. And on July 28, it became the first to start getting tested in a late-stage trial in a scene that reflected the firm’s receptiveness to press coverage.

The first volunteer to get a shot in Moderna’s late-stage trial was a television anchor at the CNN affiliate in Savannah, Ga., a move that raised eyebrows at rival vaccine makers.

Along with those achievements, Moderna has repeatedly stirred controversy.

On May 18, Moderna issued a press release trumpeting “positive interim clinical data.” The firm said its vaccine had generated neutralizing antibodies in the first eight volunteers in the early-phase study, a tiny sample.

But Moderna didn’t provide any backup data, making it hard to assess how encouraging the results were. Nonetheless, Moderna’s share price rose 20% that day.

Some top Moderna executives also drew criticism for selling shares worth millions, including Bancel and the firm’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks.

In addition, some critics have said the government has given Moderna a sweetheart deal by bankrolling the costs for developing the vaccine and pledging to buy at least 100 million doses, all for $2.48 billion.

That works out to roughly $25 a dose, which Moderna acknowledges includes a profit.

In contrast, the government has pledged more than $1 billion to Johnson & Johnson to manufacture and provide at least 100 million doses of its vaccine, which uses different technology than mRNA. But J&J, which collaborated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research and is also in a late-stage trial, has promised not to profit off sales of the vaccine during the pandemic.

Over in Germany, Sahin, the head of BioNTech, said a Lancet article in January about the outbreak in Wuhan, an international hub, galvanized him.

“We understood that this would become a pandemic,” he said.

The next day, he met with his leadership team.

“I told them that we have to deal with a pandemic which is coming to Germany,” Sahin recalled.

He also realized he needed a strong partner to manufacture the vaccine and thought of Pfizer. The two companies had worked together before to try to develop mRNA influenza vaccines. In March, he called Pfizer’s top vaccine expert, Kathrin Jansen.

“I asked her if Pfizer was interested in teaming up with us, and she, without any discussion, said, ‘Yes, we would love to do that,’” Sahin recalled.

Philip Dormitzer, chief scientific officer for viral vaccines at Pfizer, said developing a coronavirus vaccine is “very much in Pfizer’s comfort zone as a vaccine company with multiple vaccine products.”

Pfizer has about 2,400 employees in Massachusetts, including about 1,400 at its Andover plant, one of three making the vaccine for the New York-based company in the U.S.

Pfizer, through its partnership with BioNTech, isn’t taking any money upfront from the government. Rather, the federal government will pay the partners $1.95 billion for at least 100 million doses if the vaccine gets approved.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who rose through the ranks after more than 25 years with the company, said in a September interview with “Face the Nation” that if the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine fails, his company will absorb the financial loss. He said Pfizer opted not to take government funding up front to shield the drug giant from politics.

“I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy,” he said. “When you get money from someone, that always comes with strings.”

Top executives at Pfizer also have sold far less stock compared to Moderna since the pandemic began.

BioNTech executives haven’t sold any shares since the company went public last year, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records. Still, the soaring share prices of BioNTech and Moderna have made both Sahin and Bancel billionaires, according to Forbes.

Some experts worry about injecting the first vaccine of this kind into hundreds of million of people so quickly.

“You have all these odd clinical and pathological changes caused by this novel bat coronavirus, and you’re about to meet it with all of these vaccines with which you have no experience,” said Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an authority on vaccines.

Blood samples from volunteers
Blood samples from volunteers participating in Moderna’s Phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine trial wait to be processed in a lab at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.TAIMY ALVAREZ/AP

Several other drug makers have also developed experimental mRNA vaccines for the coronavirus, but are not as far along, including CureVac, another German biotech, and Translate Bio, which has partnered with the French vaccine giant Sanofi Pasteur.

Pfizer began its late-stage trial on July 27 — the same day as Moderna — with the first volunteers receiving injections at the University of Rochester. It announced its promising early results from that trial on Monday, and hopes to have sufficient data this month to seek emergency use authorization of the vaccine for at least some high-risk people.

Moderna may not be far behind. Its spokesperson Ray Jordan said Monday that executives suspected Pfizer would release some preliminary late-stage trial data before Moderna, in part because of the dosing schedule of the rival vaccines. Recipients of Pfizer’s vaccine get two doses three weeks apart, while recipients of Moderna’s get two doses four weeks apart.

Striking a magnanimous note, he described Pfizer’s news as “an important step for mRNA medicine.”

“We’ve said that the world needs more than one Covid-19 vaccine,” Jordan said. “We remain on track.”

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed reporting.

Israel Assassinates Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, The Iranian Scientist.

Iran scientist linked to military nuclear program killed

November 28, 2020
 
 
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This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist that Israel alleged led the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program until its disbanding in the early 2000s was “assassinated” Friday, state television said. (Fars News Agency via AP)

 

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An Iranian scientist named by the West as the leader of the Islamic Republic’s disbanded military nuclear program was killed Friday in an ambush on the outskirts of Tehran, authorities said.

Iran’s foreign minister alleged the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh bore “serious indications” of an Israeli role, but did not elaborate. Israel, long suspected of killing several Iranian nuclear scientists a decade ago, declined to immediately comment. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once told the public to “remember that name” when talking about Fakhrizadeh.

The killing risks further raising tensions across the Mideast, nearly a year after Iran and the U.S. stood on the brink of war when an American drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad. It comes just as President-elect Joe Biden stands poised to be inaugurated in January and will likely complicate his efforts to return America to a pact aimed at ensuring Iran does not have enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

That deal, which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, has entirely unraveled after President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018.

Trump himself retweeted a posting from Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, an expert on the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, about the killing. Melman’s tweet called the killing a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”

Details about the slaying remained slim in the hours after the attack, which happened in Absard, a village just east of the capital that is a retreat for the Iranian elite. Iranian state television said an old truck with explosives hidden under a load of wood blew up near a sedan carrying Fakhrizadeh.

As Fakhrizadeh’s sedan stopped, at least five gunmen emerged and raked the car with rapid fire, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency said.

Fakhrizadeh died at a hospital after doctors and paramedics couldn’t revive him. Others wounded included Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards. Photos and video shared online showed a Nissan sedan with bullet holes in the windshield and blood pooled on the road.

While no one claimed responsibility for the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed the finger at Israel, calling the killing an act of “state terror.”

“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today. This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and a presidential candidate in Iran’s 2021 election, also blamed Israel — and issued a warning.

“In the last days of their gambling ally’s political life, the Zionists seek to intensify and increase pressure on Iran to wage a full-blown war,” Dehghan wrote, appearing to refer to Trump’s last days in office. “We will descend like lightning on the killers of this oppressed martyr and we will make them regret their actions!”

Hours after the attack, the Pentagon announced it already had brought the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier back into the Middle East, an unusual move as the carrier already spent months in the region. It cited the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as the reason for the decision, saying “it was prudent to have additional defensive capabilities in the region to meet any contingency.”

The attack comes just days before the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari that Tehran also blamed on Israel. That and other targeted killings happened at the time that the so-called Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, destroyed Iranian centrifuges.

The area around Absard, which has a view of Mount Damavand, the country’s highest peak, is filled with vacation villas. Roads on Friday, part of the Iranian weekend, were emptier than normal due to a lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, offering his attackers a chance to strike with fewer people around.

Fakhrizadeh led Iran’s so-called AMAD program that Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon. Tehran long has maintained its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program” through the end of 2003. That was the AMAD program, which included work on the carefully timed high explosives needed to detonate an implosion-style nuclear bomb.

Iran also “conducted computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device” before 2005 and between 2005 and 2009, the IAEA has said. The agency said, however, that those calculations were “incomplete and fragmented.”

IAEA inspectors now monitor Iranian nuclear sites as part of the now-unraveling nuclear deal with world powers. Experts believe Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make at least two nuclear weapons if it chose to pursue the bomb. Meanwhile, an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility exploded in July in what Tehran now calls a sabotage attack.

Fakhrizadeh, born in 1958, had been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. for his work on AMAD. Iran always described him as a university physics professor. A member of the Revolutionary Guard, Fakhrizadeh had been seen in pictures in meetings attended by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a sign of his power.

In recent years, U.S. sanctions lists name him as heading Iran’s Organization for Defensive Innovation and Research. The State Department described that organization last year as working on “dual-use research and development activities, of which aspects are potentially useful for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems.”

Iran’s mission to the U.N., meanwhile, described Fakhrizadeh’s recent work as “development of the first indigenous COVID-19 test kit” and overseeing Tehran’s efforts at making a possible coronavirus vaccine.

In 2018, Netanyahu gave a presentation in which he unveiled what he described as material stolen by Israel from an Iranian nuclear archive.

“A key part of the plan was to form new organizations to continue the work,” Netanyahu alleged. “This is how Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Project AMAD, put it. Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”

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Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat and Mohammad Nasiri in Tehran, Iran, and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.

Israel Sabotages Iran Nuclear Site

Analysts: Fire at Iran nuclear site hit centrifuge facility

July 3, 2020
 
 
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This photo released Thursday, July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. A fire burned the building above Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, though officials say it did not affect its centrifuge operation or cause any release of radiation. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran sought to downplay the fire Thursday, calling it an “incident” that only affected an “industrial shed.” (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

 

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A fire and an explosion struck a centrifuge production plant above Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility early Thursday, analysts said, one of the most-tightly guarded sites in all of the Islamic Republic after earlier acts of sabotage there.

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran sought to downplay the fire, calling it an “incident” that only affected an under-construction “industrial shed,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said. However, both Kamalvandi and Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi rushed after the fire to Natanz, a facility earlier targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus and built underground to withstand enemy airstrikes.

The fire threatened to rekindle wider tensions across the Middle East, similar to the escalation in January after a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad and Tehran launched a retaliatory ballistic missile attack targeting American forces in Iraq.

While offering no cause for Thursday’s blaze, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency published a commentary addressing the possibility of sabotage by enemy nations such as Israel and the U.S. following other recent explosions in the country.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far has tried to prevent intensifying crises and the formation of unpredictable conditions and situations,” the commentary said. But ”the crossing of red lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran by hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the U.S., means that strategy … should be revised.”

The fire began around 2 a.m. local time in the northwest corner of the Natanz compound in Iran’s central Isfahan province, according to data collected by a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite that tracks fires from space.

Images later released by Iranian state media show a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed. Debris on the ground and a door that looked blown off its hinges suggested an explosion accompanied the blaze.

“There are physical and financial damages and we are investigating to assess,” Kamalvandi told Iranian state television. “Furthermore, there has been no interruption in the work of the enrichment site. Thank God, the site is continuing its work as before.”

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In Washington, the State Department said that U.S. officials were “monitoring reports of a fire at an Iranian nuclear facility.”

“This incident serves as another reminder of how the Iranian regime continues to prioritize its misguided nuclear program to the detriment of the Iranian people’s needs,” it said.

The site of the fire corresponds to a newly opened centrifuge production facility, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

Hinz said he relied on satellite images and a state TV program on the facility to locate the building, which sits in Natanz’s northwest corner.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security similarly said the fire struck the production facility. His institute previously wrote a report on the new plant, identifying it from satellite pictures while it was under construction and later built.

Iranian nuclear officials did not respond to a request for comment about the analysts’ comments. However, any damage to the facility would be a major setback, said Hinz, who called the fire “very, very suspicious.”

“It would delay the advancement of the centrifuge technology quite a bit at Natanz,” Hinz said. “Once you have done your research and development, you can’t undo that research and development. Targeting them would be very useful” for Iran’s adversaries.

Natanz, also known as the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, is among the sites now monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency after Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. That deal saw Iran agree to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The IAEA said in a statement it was aware of reports of the fire. “We currently anticipate no impact on the IAEA’s safeguards verification activities,” the Vienna-based agency said.

Natanz became a flashpoint for Western fears about Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran building an underground facility at the site, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tehran. In 2003, the IAEA visited Natanz, which Iran said would house centrifuges for its nuclear program, buried under some 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete.

Natanz today hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium. Currently, the IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5% purity — above the terms of the nuclear deal but far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. Workers there also have conducted tests on advanced centrifuges, according to the IAEA.

The U.S. under President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, setting up months of tensions between Tehran and Washington. Iran now is breaking all the production limits set by the deal, but still allows IAEA inspectors and cameras to watch its nuclear sites.

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Natanz remains of particular concern to Tehran as it has been targeted for sabotage before. The Stuxnet malware, widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation, disrupted and destroyed centrifuges at Natanz amid the height of Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Satellite photos show an explosion last Friday that rattled Iran’s capital came from an area in its eastern mountains that analysts believe hides an underground tunnel system and missile production sites. Iran has blamed the blast on a gas leak in what it describes a “public area.”

Another explosion from a gas leak at a medical clinic in northern Tehran killed 19 people Tuesday.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and former Iran analyst for the prime minister’s office, said he didn’t know if there was an active sabotage campaign targeting Tehran. However, he said the series of explosions in Iran feel like “more than a coincidence.”

“Theoretically speaking, Israel, the U.S. and others have an interest to stop this Iran nuclear clock or at least show Iran there’s a price in going that way,” he said. “If Iran won’t stop, we might see more accidents in Iran.”

Late Thursday, the BBC’s Persian service said it received an email prior to the announcement of the Natanz fire from a group identifying itself as the Cheetahs of the Homeland, claiming responsibility for an attack on the centrifuge production facility at Natanz. This group, which claimed to be dissident members of Iran’s security forces, had never been heard of before by Iran experts and the claim could not be immediately authenticated by the AP.

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Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Natanz blackout is Nuclear Terrorism

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’

April 11, 2021
 
 
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FILE – This file photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. The facility lost power Sunday, April 11, 2021, just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium faster, the latest incident to strike the site amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers. Iran on Sunday described the blackout an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran on Sunday described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions as world powers and Tehran continue to negotiate over its tattered nuclear deal.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, suspicion fell immediately on Israel, where its media nearly uniformly reported a devastating cyberattack orchestrated by the country caused the blackout.

If Israel was responsible, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop the nuclear deal.

Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the American-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who once served as the country’s foreign minister, offered what appeared to be the harshest comments of his long career, which included the assassination of nuclear scientists a decade ago. Iran blames Israel for those killings as well.

He pledged to “seriously improve” his nation’s nuclear technology while working to lift international sanctions.

Salehi’s comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility, but his words suggested a serious disruption.

“While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism,” Salehi said.

The IAEA, the United Nations’ body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.

However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

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Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is “penetrable,” he added.

Netanyahu later Sunday night toasted his security chiefs, with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at his side on the eve of his country’s Independence Day.

“It is very difficult to explain what we have accomplished,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s history, saying the country had been transformed from a position of weakness into a “world power.”

Israel typically doesn’t discuss operations carried out by its Mossad intelligence agency or specialized military units. In recent weeks, Netanyahu repeatedly has described Iran as the major threat to his country as he struggles to hold onto power after multiple elections and while facing corruption charges.

Speaking at the event Sunday night, Netanyahu urged his security chiefs to “continue in this direction, and to continue to keep the sword of David in your hands,” using an expression referring to Jewish strength.

Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.

“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.”

The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, also appeared to reference Iran.

The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”

On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.

Since then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.

The nuclear deal had granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for ensuring its stockpile never swelled to the point of allowing Iran to obtain an atomic bomb if it chose.

On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion, likely from a limpet mine. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast. That attack escalated a long-running shadow war in Mideast waterways targeting shipping in the region.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Josef Federman and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

 

 
US Destroyers Were Swarmed By Small Unidentified Aircraft off California

Multiple Destroyers Were Swarmed By Mysterious ‘Drones’ Off California Over Numerous Nights

The disturbing series of events during the summer of 2019 resulted in an investigation that made its way to the highest echelons of the Navy.

Destroyer sailing at nightUSN
 

In July of 2019, a truly bizarre series of events unfolded around California’s Channel Islands. Over a number of days, groups of unidentified aircraft, which the U.S. Navy simply refers to as ‘drones’ or ‘UAVs,’ pursued that service’s vessels, prompting a high-level investigation. 

During the evening encounters, as many as six aircraft were reported swarming around the ships at once. The drones were described as flying for prolonged periods in low-visibility conditions, and performing brazen maneuvers over the Navy warships near a sensitive military training range less than 100 miles off Los Angeles. The ensuing investigation included elements of the Navy, Coast Guard, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The incidents received major attention, including from the Chief of Naval Operations—the apex of the Navy’s chain of command. 

The following is our own investigation into these events, during which we discovered these events were far more extensive in scale than previously understood.

 

A Strange Story Emerges

Last year, documentary filmmaker Dave Beaty uncovered initial details about the events, centering on the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Kidd (DDG-100). That initial account described a tense encounter, culminating in the deployment of onboard intelligence teams.

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USS Kidd.

 

 

New documents significantly expand the public’s knowledge of the scope and severity of that incident and reveal others that occurred around the same time. These details come largely from our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which resulted in the disclosure of deck logs from the ships involved. Additionally, our investigation utilized hundreds of gigabytes of automatic identification system (AIS) ship location data to forensically reconstruct the position of both military and civilian ships in the area during this strange series of events.

By using the USS Kidd‘s position as a starting point, we were able to identify several other ships in close proximity to it during the incidents in question, including U.S. Navy destroyers USS Rafael Peralta, USS Russell, USS John Finn, and the USS Paul Hamilton. Subsequent FOIA requests for these ships’ records allowed us to build a composite picture of the events as a whole.

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Night One: July 14th, 2019

It appears the incidents began with an initial ‘UAV’ sighting by the USS Kidd around 10:00 PM on the night of July 14th, 2019. Deck logs like the one below provide information about the course and speed of the ship. Additionally, they record any other relevant information about unusual events or changes in the ship’s behavior. This log records the first drone sighting:

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

As previously reported, two drones, typically described as UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles throughout the logs, were spotted by the Kidd. The Ship Nautical Or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation team, or “SNOOPIE team,” refers to an onboard photographic intelligence team tasked with documenting unknown contacts, events of interest, and other objects of interest on short order.

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A member of a destroyer’s SNOOPIE team with a video camera in hand.

 

 

Though an Aegis-equipped ship like the USS Kidd has some of the most sophisticated sensors on earth, sailors equipped with consumer-grade cameras act as a kind of nimble spotting and event recording team, able to quickly adapt to changing conditions while providing situational awareness and recording what they see through traditional video and photo methods. You can see a SNOOPIE team in action and one of their products in the video below:

 

Moments after the sighting on July 14th, the USS Kidd entered into a condition of restricted communications designed to enhance operational security and enhance survivability. This is noted throughout many of the logs as “River City 1.” During the events, the ships often engaged “emissions control,” or EMCON, protocols designed to minimize their electronic emissions profile.

Less than 10 minutes after the sighting, the USS Kidd advised the USS Rafael Peralta of the situation. The USS Rafael Peralta logs show that at around 10:00 PM it activated its own SNOOPIE team. They also show that reports of additional sightings were coming in from the USS John Finn.

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

For its part, the logs of the USS John Finn simply reported possible UAV activity, and deactivation of the ship’s AIS transponder system. In fact, the selective deactivation of AIS was a challenge for us in reconstructing ship positions, as we sometimes had to rely on cross-comparison of deck logs to locate the position of the ships.

Shortly after the initial sighting, a red flashing light was spotted.

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

Among the more dramatic entries in the logs from this incident is the one below from the USS Rafael Peralta, describing a white light hovering over the ship’s flight deck.

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

The log reflects that the drone managed to match the destroyer’s speed with the craft moving at 16 knots in order to maintain a hovering position over the ship’s helicopter landing pad. To further complicate what was already a complex maneuver, the drone was operating in low visibility conditions (less than a nautical mile) and at night. 

By this point, the encounter had lasted over 90 minutes—significantly longer than what commercially available drones can typically sustain. 

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The red-lit bridge of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer at night.

 

 

According to AIS data, few civilian ships were in the immediate vicinity. AIS is not strictly mandatory in all cases, and can be turned off, so it is possible other vessels could have been nearby, as well. The civilian bulk carrier Bass Strait, cited later in the investigation, was situated towards the northern edge of the encounter area. A Liberian-flagged oil tanker, the Sigma Triumph, was just south of the position of the three destroyers. The ORV Alguitaa 50-foot catamaran, briefly a subject of interest in the official investigation that would come, was just off the western tip of San Clemente Island. Importantly, San Clemente Island is owned by the Navy and is frequently used for military training and testing purposes.

The following map shows maritime traffic around the ports of Los Angeles and San Diego on July 14th. The position of each ship at 10:00 PM is marked with a black indicator, and the track of the ship before and after the incident time is marked with colored dots. The approximate positions of each cluster of ships are numerically marked.

AUTHOR’S ILLUSTRATION

 

 

The two groups of destroyers and the ORV Alguita form a roughly triangular shape with each side approximately 50 nautical miles long, containing an area just over 1000 square nautical miles. The Bass Strait and the USS Paul Hamilton were in relatively close proximity at marker one. The ORV Alguita was off the northern tip of San Clemente Island at marker two. The USS Kidd was at marker three, and the formation of three destroyers was at marker four. The tanker Sigma Triumph was just to the west of the formation of three destroyers, at marker five.

Night Two: July 15th, 2019

Due to new FOIA disclosures, we now know that another major series of incursions occurred on the following night, July 15th, 2019.

This time, the USS Rafael Peralta was the first to spot the objects and to deploy its SNOOPIE teams at 8:39 PM.

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

By 9:00 PM, the USS Kidd had also spotted the drones and again deployed its SNOOPIE team. The drones seem to have pursued the ships, even as they continued to maneuver throughout the incident.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

By 9:20 PM, the USS Kidd logs simply remark “Multiple UAVs around ship” – with the word  “above” crossed out:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

17 minutes later, the command is issued to man Mark 87 stations:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

The meaning of this is not exactly clear, but it could be referring to the Mark 87 Electro-Optical Director that is a component of the massive infrared and optical turret known as the Mk20 Electro-Optical Sighting System (EOSS) located above the bridge. This system was originally meant to help direct the ship’s 5-inch gun, but also provides surveillance and tracking over long distances. The War Zone has done a complete profile on this powerful optical system, which could have been useful in trying to understand what was going on around the ship and to possibly identify the drones at night.

 

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The Mk20 EOSS.

 

 

The reference could also be in regards to the ship’s 25mm/87 Mk38 chain guns that are also equipped for remote use via a FLIR ball, although this is less likely. There is also the Mk 87 line throwing rifle adapter used for firing lines to other ships during underway replenishment and other activities, but this makes little sense in the context of the moment. 

At approximately the same time, the USS Russell records a frenzy of activity:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

The logs describe drones dropping in elevation, and apparently moving forward and backward, left and right.

Meanwhile, the USS Rafael Peralta received a radio call from a passing cruise ship, the Carnival Imagination, notifying them that the drones are not theirs, and that they also see as many as five or six drones maneuvering nearby:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

The incident continued into the night, with the USS Rafael Peralta first recording two UAVs and then four UAVs near their ship:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

Approaching midnight, the USS Russell reports a final sighting:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

Despite the nearly three-hour duration of the event, none of the warships involved appear to have been able to identify the drones.

 

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An Arleigh Burke destroyer underway at night.

 

 

In contrast to the first night, the second set of encounters occurred closer to shore. Several of the drone sightings placed their position between San Clemente Island and San Diego. The approximate positions of the ships and drone sightings are depicted below. Note that the track dots indicate the position of the ships throughout the event, with a larger black dot indicating the position of each ship near the start of the incident at 8:45 PM.

 

AUTHOR’S ILLUSTRATION

 

 

The Official Investigation

As might be expected for such an unusual set of encounters, a formal investigation appears to have been launched immediately. The first email we obtained was dated July 17th, and referenced earlier phone conversations.

By the morning of July 18th, a Navy liaison to the Coast Guard began requesting updates for information on vessels involved in the encounter, citing “higher-level visibility.”

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

An hour later, a special agent with Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), assigned to 3rd Fleet as a “Staff CI Officer,” with CI likely standing for “counter-intelligence,” thanked a colleague in the Coast Guard. They mentioned that the information would go directly to the commander of the Pacific Fleet and to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) – the top of the Navy hierarchy, and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

It appears the initial focus of their investigation was the ORV Alguita. An email sent just 10 minutes later expressed the need to relay information about the ship to a larger team.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

By this time, an agent with the Los Angeles office of the FBI was included in the email chain. Preliminary information indicated that while the ORV Alguita did have drones onboard, they had very limited capabilities.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

A follow-up email on the evening of July 18th indicated that the Coast Guard had contacted the ship directly via satellite phone. Based on the subject line reference to San Nicolas Island and the time period given by investigators, it seems the ORV Alguita was being examined specifically for the events of July 14th.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

The investigators had encountered several problems at this point. The owners of the Alguita denied operating a drone during the time in question, and claimed that their drones were incapable of operating more than a few feet from the ship. Further, the Phantom IV drone is a small quadcopter and has a maximum flight time of 28 minutes, according to manufacturer DJI, which is inconsistent with the long durations of the incidents and general performance described as observed in the deck logs.

 

DJI

Phantom 4 Pro.

 

 

Although not referenced in these emails, the Alguita was also significantly west of the events of the second night, July 15th, based on AIS data. Apparently recognizing that ORV Alguita was a poor fit, investigators conceded that they needed to keep looking. Emails reflect that Navy intelligence began to take a more active role in the investigation by July 19th, with the director of the Maritime Intelligence Operations Center (MIOC) within 3rd Fleet, identified by the acronym C3F, “looping in” the rest of the command’s intelligence office, or N2.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

Investigators next sought to rule out the possibility that the drones were operated by the Navy itself. By Tuesday of the following week, a representative from the Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility (FACSFAC) based in San Diego clarified that UAVs were only operated by the Navy in certain limited areas. They then provided the following map of operational areas (OPAREAS) with a breakdown of platforms in use.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

Somewhat cryptically, one of the investigators referenced “recent observations” and further clarified the need to “correlate or rule out operations.” He further requested data detailing operations between the 14th to the 17th of July.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

FACSFAC San Diego, in turn, sent spreadsheets of scheduled activity during that time, and explained that UAV operations are highlighted in yellow. Though the flight schedules released to us for July 14th are completely redacted, the underlying highlighting is visible. No yellow highlighting can be seen for July 14th:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

By the afternoon of July 23, the investigators were still grappling with determining the intent behind the incidents.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

The last email disclosed to us was from July 25th. It references a classified briefing on drones (referred to here as UAS).

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

A further FOIA request for information about these briefings was denied due to their classification level. After July 25th, the email trail turns cold.

Remarkably, the drone incidents began occurring again around this time. Renewed sightings occurred during the early hours of July 25th and July 30th, just as investigators were beginning to examine classified briefings and were apparently still seeking to identify the intent behind the July 14th and 15th incursions.

The incident on the 25th involving the USS Kidd began around 1:20 AM, with the SNOOPIE team being deactivated around 1:52 AM.

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

The incident on July 30th was longer, with the team activated around 2:15 AM and only deactivated by 3:27 AM:

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

NAVY VIA FOIA

 

 

These later incidents are notable because they occurred during the investigation, and after FACSFAC San Diego had been closely consulted. 

At the time of writing, we do not have complete deck logs for the month of July except for USS Kidd, so it remains uncertain if other ships also continued to have drone encounters later in the month.

Further information continues to emerge from FOIA requests, but based on the available evidence it appears that the initial investigation did not ultimately identify the source of the drones.

Increasingly Pressing Questions

Cumulatively, these new details raise a host of difficult questions.

It is unclear why anyone would operate drones near Navy warships in such a brazen manner. Commercially available drones are not commonly capable of flying for such long durations across great distances with speeds in excess of 45 miles an hour. Based on the pooled data available from the deck logs, we estimate the drones traversed at least 100 nautical miles in the July 14th incident. 

Furthermore, the drones were able to locate and catch a destroyer traveling at 16 knots in conditions with less than one nautical mile of visibility. Equally baffling, their operators appear to have coordinated at least five to six drones simultaneously. Then there is the question of line-of-sight control, and control methods in general, which make the capabilities described all that much more puzzling.

 

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A U.S. Navy destroyer cruises under the stars. 

 

 

To be sure, San Clemente Island and nearby training area FLETA HOT are hosts to a bevy of testing, which can include classified programs. Is it possible that the drones were operated by the military itself in an errant test of some kind? 

If so, the incursions continued after a concerted investigation that reached the highest level of the Navy hierarchy. It also appears that no UAV activity was scheduled by FASFAC San Diego during July 14th. On the other hand, it is a general area where extremely strange things have occurred in the past.

If the drones were not operated by the American military, these incidents represent a highly significant security breach. If they were part of some kind of covert action, it is nonetheless unclear why they were flown so openly and so frequently in almost a harassing manner. More troubling still, if a foreign state actor was involved, where exactly were the drones launched from? 

One thing is fairly sure: the U.S. Navy has a large amount of data on these events. The documents above reflect that multiple independent photographic intelligence teams were deployed. These teams are only a small part of a sophisticated suite of surveillance capabilities and advanced sensors, including the ability to detect radio emissions in the vessels’ vicinity, available to any one of the ships involved. This is on top of the land-based sensors that closely surveil the area. In fact, it is puzzling that those sensors, coupled with a likely extensive photographic record, were not sufficient in and of themselves to resolve the matter. This calls into question the “drone” designation. Was there ever even a hard description of these craft beyond lights in the sky?

The question remains: who was operating these craft with apparent impunity, and for what purpose, and was this extremely bizarre case ever resolved? 

Our investigation is into this event is still underway and we will update you as soon as more information becomes available. 

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com

 

 
 
A series of bizarre events off Southern California in 2019

Navy’s Top Officer Says ‘Drones’ That Swarmed Destroyers Remain Unidentified

A series of bizarre events off Southern California in 2019 remain unexplained according to the Chief of Naval Operations.

Top Navy Officials Brief on COVID-19 ResponseOFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFEN—PUBLIC DOMAIN
 

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At a roundtable with reporters today, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday, the U.S. Navy’s top officer, was asked about a series of bizarre incidents that took place in July 2019 and involved what only have been described as ‘drones’ swarming American destroyers off the coast of Southern California. The War Zone was the first to report in detail on this series of mysterious events after the incident was originally uncovered by filmmaker Dave Beaty. 

Asked by Jeff Schogol of Task & Purpose if the Navy had positively identified any of the aircraft involved, Gilday responded by saying:

“No, we have not. I am aware of those sightings and as it’s been reported there have been other sightings by aviators in the air and by other ships not only of the United States, but other nations – and of course other elements within the U.S. joint force.” 

 

“Those findings have been collected and they still are being analyzed,” Gilday added. “I don’t have anything new to report, Jeff, on what those findings have revealed thus far. But I will tell you we do have a well-established process in place across the joint force to collect that data and to get it to a separate repository for analysis.”

At the time of writing, it is unclear if Admiral Gilday was referring to the Department of Defense’s Navy-led Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), created last August to examine “incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace.” A Senate-requested report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena is expected later this year. Representatives from the UAPTF could not be reached for comment.

A preliminary response to our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries indicates that the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) possesses documents about the incident and that they are intermingled with records from several other agencies. This would make sense as the UAPTF was established within ONI, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Schogol also asked if there was any suspicion that the aircraft described as drones were “extraterrestrial.” Gilday responded, “No, I can’t speak to that – I have no indications at all of that.”

The War Zone has reached out to the Navy, Coast Guard, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for further details regarding the drones flying near Navy destroyers in 2019. Members of the intelligence and armed services committees in both the Senate and the House were asked for comment, as well. While at least some elected officials indicated they were aware of the issue, none were able to make a statement at this time regarding the encounters off the coast of Southern California two years ago.

We will continue to update our readers with new information on this strange series of events as soon as we get it.

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com