The Ripon Forum

Volume 55, No. 4

September 2021

Preparing for the Next Biological Threat

By on September 8, 2021

by ANDY WEBER & NICOLE A. TERAN

Twenty years ago, the world was shocked as jetliners crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on that beautiful crisp, blue-sky morning. One of us was working in a Pentagon office at the moment of impact at 9:37 AM. In the following weeks, anthrax letters started arriving in Senate offices and newsrooms.

The September 11th terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax attacks came as a surprise to many due in part to what the 9/11 Commission later called a failure of imagination.  But the extreme danger of terrorism and biological weapons were well known to the Department of Defense, which had been grappling with the legacy of the Soviet Union’s chilling Cold War achievements conducted at a scale that can only be described as evil.

At the time of the attacks, the Pentagon’s Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program was helping Kazakhstan safely destroy an inherited anthrax weapons factory. The factory was capable of producing 300 tons of anthrax during a mobilization period of about eight months. Thanks to Nunn-Lugar, green grass now grows where that anthrax factory, the size of two football fields, once stood.

The Soviet Union had also conducted open-air testing of biological weapons on Vozrozhdeniye, or Renaissance Island, in the Aral Sea. These tests exposed hundreds of monkeys to anthrax, plague, smallpox, and other agents to certify their lethality. Nunn-Lugar later helped Uzbekistan destroy bulk anthrax the Soviet Army had buried, but not fully neutralized, on the island.

After 9/11, the U.S. government acted energetically to counter biological threats. In one sweeping success, the nation stockpiled enough smallpox vaccine to protect every American citizen, converting an apocalyptic threat into a mere logistics and distribution challenge. This essentially rendered smallpox ineffective as a mass-casualty threat to the nation.

After 9/11, the U.S. government acted energetically to counter biological threats.

These bio-preparedness efforts have paid dividends over the past 18 months. Indeed, because the U.S. invested in protecting the American people against deliberate and engineered biological threats, agile platforms such as rapid diagnostics, monoclonal antibodies, and mRNA vaccines were able to come online more quickly. Lives are being saved today because the U.S. government chose preparedness over weakness. The stunningly successful partnership between the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services, and industry — known better as Operation Warp Speed — facilitated the development and deployment of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19 in record-breaking time. It provides a good model for moving forward.

With a nimble and rapid biodefense system of epidemic early warning, we are unlikely to be surprised again. Coupled with the development of rapid medical countermeasures, manufacturing, and delivery, America can react quickly and nip pandemics in the bud. A robust biodefense plan can make real progress towards the vision of making bioweapons obsolete as a mass destruction threat and ending pandemics. Planning, exercising and improving our biodefense and public health capabilities in the U.S. and with global partners can convince our adversaries that the pursuit of biological weapons will be ineffective. We call this deterrence through preparedness.

Unlike missile defenses, for example, funding for a biological early warning and rapid response system that can be used against deliberate, accidental, and naturally occurring bio-threats will produce both enormous national security and public health benefits. Such capabilities can provide treatments and preventative measures for everything from the highly deadly, hemorrhagic Marburg virus to the inconvenient, cold-causing rhinovirus. The technologies to prevent and treat these diseases — and yet to-be-known diseases — is modern science, not science fiction.

Biotechnology is advancing with an ever increasing pace. When the Soviet anthrax weapons facility was operating, state of the art technologies would have taken 600 years to sequence the human genome. In 2001, the human genome project had been underway for 11 years with two more to go. Today, a human genome can be sequenced at low cost in under a day.

This and other scientific advancements have also put the power of manipulating biology in the hands of more people. The democratization of biology allows for numerous startups to improve human health, but also empowers less well-equipped nations, groups, and even lone actors who may have malevolent intentions.

Even beyond these evolutions in biological threats, our policies must also account for the threat of accidents, including from research into biological weapons even if they are not used in an attack. North Korea has an advanced program for the research and development of biological weapons. Because South Korean military forces are not vaccinated against smallpox or anthrax, an accidental release could be as deadly as an intentional one. Despite U.S. vaccine stockpiles and given the potential distribution issues, vaccine hesitancy, and the 30 percent mortality rate, an accident could be devastating. For this reason, deterring countries like North Korea from developing biological weapons in the first place should be a core Defense Department mission and needs to be resourced appropriately.

Despite the threat that biological weapons pose, funding for some of our key biodefense initiatives overseas atrophied in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the threat that biological weapons pose, funding for some of our key biodefense initiatives overseas atrophied in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a month before the pandemic started, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper cut his Department’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program by about 10 percent, and reduced funding for the Nunn-Lugar Biological Threat Reduction Program by a third. Despite the obvious benefit an early warning and rapid response system would have had against the COVID-19 pandemic, both of these Trump-era budget cuts to DoD biodefense funding have so far not been reversed by the Biden Administration.

Scientific advancement requires a sustained effort that an influx of emergency funds during a crisis cannot replace. This is why we and the Council on Strategic Risks are calling for “10+10 Over 10” — $10 billion a year for HHS and $10 billion a year for DoD over the next ten years. With such funding, we can deter the development and use of biological weapons and prepare for the next biological outbreak, regardless of its origins. We know what kinds of hazards we are facing and what it would take to prepare for them.

Twenty years ago on 9/11, we suffered from a failure of imagination, and nearly 3,000 Americans paid the ultimate penalty as a result. Shame on us if we are caught unprepared again, because we know the threats that we face and we should not be surprised.

The Honorable Andy Weber is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. He served from 2009-2014 as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs. Follow him on twitter @AndyWeberNCB. Dr. Nicole A. Teran, P.H.D., is a Visiting Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks.

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