The inadequate initial U.S. response to COVID-19, coupled with new advances in biotechnology, could make biological weapons more appealing for U.S. adversaries. The biological weapons capability achieved by the United States in the 1960s and by the Soviet Union in the 1980s suggests that it is very likely that near-peer adversaries have the capabilities to launch a biological attack with the same destructive capacity as a nuclear strike. However, in future decades, less lethal biological attacks may become more appealing. The risk is a new biological component to the low-boil actions by China and Russia that have been dubbed the “Shadow War.”
To respond to the threat of another pandemic or a bioweapons attack, the United States first needs to improve its woefully underfunded public health infrastructure. Then, with the specific risk of low-level attacks in mind, the government should enhance its capacity to defend against and deter biological attacks. This means giving the Department of Defense a bigger and better-funded role in public health preparedness, publicizing a credible strategy for attributing and responding to biological attacks, and devoting more resources to biotechnology research and development.
Improve the Public Health Infrastructure
Many analysts have cited the government’s poor initial performance as a primary cause of America’s failed response to the pandemic. Indeed, the list of errors in the early response was long and consequential. However, there are long-term structural issues, which predate the current pandemic, that impeded U.S. response efforts.
U.S. public health infrastructure and its workforce have been slowly deteriorating for decades, throughout Democratic and Republican administrations. This hindered the initial U.S. response to COVID-19. Much of America’s public health capacity lies in state and local public health departments. Long before COVID-19, organizations like the Institute of Medicine highlighted the impact of state and local budget cuts on U.S. public health preparedness. The state and local funding landscape is characterized by boom-and-bust cycles. In Fiscal Year 2001, state public health laboratory funding was at roughly $20 million. After the 2001 Amerithrax letter attacks, there was a boom: funding ramped up to $200 million in FY2003. Then came the bust: from FY2004 to FY2008, funding declined to approximately $70 million. Since then, the Center for Disease Control’s funding was basically flat from FY2009 to FY2017 and state public health funding largely declined during the same period.
Obviously, the bust years are difficult ones for public health capacity. More subtly, and perhaps more perniciously, the uneven funding means that money from the boom years cannot always be effectively used — maintaining human capital and physical infrastructure is difficult when annual funding varies widely.
An effective U.S. response to a major biological event, whether a coronavirus pandemic or a large-scale biological attack, requires a robust public health system. And this requires sustained attention and adequate resourcing. Human capital may be the most critical. This includes, among other professions, disease outbreak modelers, experts to guide policy decisions, and laboratorians for genomic sequencing and testing. Also important are physical assets such as data infrastructure, testing capacity, and a resilient supply chain for vaccines, drugs, and tests.
As we have seen with the joint Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Defense Operation Warp Speed, public-private partnerships will be an integral component for many aspects of public health response. Americans have explicitly accepted the need for private sector capabilities in manufacturing vaccines and drugs at-scale for a pandemic. Similarly, COVID-19 has demonstrated that data and data infrastructure should be similarly transformed for at-scale use during a pandemic. The private sector has taken a much larger role in designing, developing, and executing data systems for COVID-19. This will need to be sustained long-term for future outbreaks. The United States needs to rethink how to effectively maintain the current coalition of civil society, philanthropists, academics, volunteers, and the private sector for future pandemic response.
The overlap is not perfect, but much of the U.S. public health infrastructure will be needed for both naturally occurring and man-made biological threats. To be truly prepared for a major biological event, we need a long-term strategy and a sustained, consistent funding model to provide these capabilities. Translational research capacity, vaccine administration, personal protective equipment, testing, outbreak modeling, and many other components are vital for both a coronavirus outbreak and a biological attack from an agent like anthrax. This is why U.S. adversaries may be giving biological weapons a closer look in light of its failed response to COVID-19.
Biodefense for the Shadow War
In revising the U.S. public health infrastructure in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. policymakers should pay particular attention to the possibility of more subtle biological weapons threats. In the future, less lethal biological attacks may be used by adversaries as a new biological component to the “Shadow War.” As described by Jim Sciutto, Shadow War features tactics that weaken the United States without kinetic force, such as cyberattacks, election interference, and industrial espionage. China and Russia have used such actions to weaken the U.S. strategic position relative to their own, without provoking America into an undesired military conflict.
Advances in biotechnology, most notably in synthetic biology, might give attackers a range of more targeted and less lethal bioweapons that they could more easily deploy. For example, consider anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), which has long been seen as an ideal bioweapon. Anthrax can be released surreptitiously in its hardy spore form, which can cause a deadly infection once inhaled. Unlike many biological agents, anthrax is not highly contagious and person-to-person transmission is rare. Anthrax is deadly because of the anthrax toxin produced by the bacteria. But what if anthrax were engineered to produce something less deadly? Perhaps anthrax could be genetically edited to produce a protein that incapacitates, rather than kills, the person it infects. A savvy adversary could transform the bacteria from a weapon of mass destruction to a weapon of mass distraction. Creative uses of bioengineered anthrax (or other spore-forming bacteria) could provide a geo-targeted attack that is difficult to attribute. The use of such subtle biological agents could have meaningful consequences and perhaps stay under the radar for some time: Consider a biological agent that makes a person slightly more susceptible to a chronic disease or minorly impedes cognitive abilities.
As with election interference and industrial espionage, the United States may struggle to come up with an appropriate response to such attacks. Thus, with this threat in mind, a number of specific actions are needed.
The first is an expanded role for the Department of Defense in deterring biological weapons. A near-peer adversary could launch biological attacks, whether large-scale or more subtle, against either America’s deployed forces or its population. The Department of Defense cannot only focus on deterring biological weapons use against U.S. forces. In partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, it should be actively engaged in deterring biological weapons use against the homeland as an equally important mission, and its biodefense efforts should be structured and funded accordingly. Public health infrastructure and capabilities to respond to pandemics for warfighters and civilians should be considered as a top national security priority.
This requires more money. Building off the success of Operation Warp Speed, the Department of Defense should continue to partner with the Department of Health and Human Services on biological preparedness efforts. Although the United States woke up to the danger of biological threats last year, the Department of Defense’s program for chemical and biological defense was cut by 10 percent in 2020. Thirty percent of those cuts were applied to the medical biodefense component that encompasses vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. But given the severity of the threat, we believe that the United States should invest $10 billion each in the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services for biodefense over each of the next 10 years. Much like an improved public health system, better biodefense capabilities for the homeland will have dual benefits: potentially deterring the use of biological weapons and enhancing the U.S. response should such an attack occur.
Second, the United States should establish and publicize a credible retaliation strategy for the range of potential biological weapons that could be used by adversaries. America has sometimes relied on a policy of strategic ambiguity that hinted a biological attack against it could be answered by a nuclear strike. Nuclear retaliation would be a disproportionate response for the type of lower-consequence biological attacks that could be employed by a sophisticated adversary. A more effective response, even to most large-scale biological attacks, would be the use of overwhelming conventional force. Additionally, improvements in attribution are particularly important for a robust retaliation strategy — without accurate attribution, the United States does not have a return address for retaliatory actions. A well-established retaliation strategy, with a robust attribution capability as its foundation, may tilt the strategic calculus of adversaries away from using biological weapons of any sort against the United States.
Third, the United States should take actions at home to promote continued global leadership of biotechnology research and development. A comprehensive strategy would include a sustained increase in funding for life sciences research and development and more robust support for translational science. Ramping up funding in these areas would help for a range of needs, especially for the ability to rapidly design and manufacture vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Retaining leadership in this sector will help the United States to develop the medical countermeasures and related technologies that are constituent components of its public health system and biodefense capabilities.
America should begin taking these steps now. Policymakers should balance the near-term response to the delta variant surge with these longer-term actions that will help us prepare for the next major biological event. Before the memory of the pandemic fades, we should tap into the current reservoir of political will for these longer-term actions. The steps recommended here will help the United States to reestablish biological deterrence and prepare for another potential pandemic. When U.S. adversaries see the country making progress in this area, it should deter the use of biological weapons, whether they are large-scale or more subtle threats.
Joseph Buccina is managing director, federal services at Cogitativo, working at the intersection of machine learning and health data. He has held several roles supporting the public sector health security mission.
Dylan George, Ph.D., is a former vice president at Ginkgo Bioworks. He served as senior policy adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2014 to 2016, and various other positions within the U.S. federal government.
Andy Weber is a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. He served from 2009 to 2014 as President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs. Follow him on Twitter @AndyWeberNCB.