The Biological Battlefield

The Biological Battlefield

Assessing America’s Readiness for Biological Warfare.
Peter Poythress

As genetic editing becomes easier and cheaper, the threat of biological weapons is growing – but the United States has made little progress in preparing to defend against them. Biological terrorism is among the most serious threats facing the United States in the 21st century, and the government is not prepared. American healthcare can hardly handle a rough flu season. [1] Scientific breakthroughs in gene editing have enabled modification to an organism’s DNA more proficiently and precisely than ever before. [2] With such impressive capabilities, a major concern is that foreign states will be tempted to revive or begin biological weapons programs and ignite biological arms races. Even the ability for other nations to develop such weapons of mass destruction is a threat that ought to be taken and prepared for seriously.


Synthetic biology, in combination with advances in DNA synthesis, data science, and software, gives scientists precise tools to manipulate living organisms, enhancing opportunities to create bioweapons. [3] It has the potential to enable the development of new types of weapons and recreate pathogenic viruses, engineer bacteria to make them more dangerous, and engineer microbes to produce and release toxic biochemicals. [4] While the technology and science themselves open new opportunities for weapon development, the ease with which chemical materials, technologies, ideas, and personnel with scientific expertise move throughout the global economy is a major cause of concern for the United States. [5] The number of people able to use the information quickly diffused across the globe continues to grow, creating more opportunity for people with nefarious intentions to take advantage of the technology and use it for acts of terrorism toward the United States.


Given such advances and increasing opportunity, the United States is ill-prepared to defend against a rogue actor using these technologies. In 2016, a Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense asserted that the United States remains underprepared for a biological crisis. The United States’ uncertain response to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks affirmed this claim. [6] This lack of preparedness makes the United States a large target not only for terrorists, but also for rogue nations that are suspected of developing biological weapons. In September 2018, the White House made it clear that U.S. officials recognize the danger of biological weapons in the 21st century when President Trump unveiled the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy. The strategy identifies key assumptions and five main goals that the Intelligence Community must keep in mind moving forward against the possibility against biological weapons of mass destruction. These goals are to enable risk awareness to inform decision-making across the biodefense enterprise, ensure biodefense enterprise capabilities to prevent bioincidents, ensure biodefense enterprise preparedness to reduce the impacts of bioincidents, rapidly response to limit impacts of bioincidents, and facilitate recovery to restore the community, economy, and environment after a bioincident. [7] Under each of these goals is a detailed plan on how to meet the standard. The strategy further established a Biodefense Steering Committee to coordinate defense efforts across the government.


While it has taken some steps in the right direction, the United States must take further measures to defend against a potential future battlefield of biology. Biological weapons ought to be considered an asymmetric threat – that is, a threat that the United States is not prepared for because the threat and/or perpetrators are too diverse to have focused responses. There are a number of adversaries who might attempt to utilize these weapons of mass destruction, ranging from regimes in North Korea and Iran to terrorist groups around the world. While there is little hard evidence to suggest other nations are developing these programs, there are several indicators that suggest North Korea is actively working to weaponize biological weapons of mass destruction. [8] Certainly, government officials in the United States are taking the threats seriously – the National Biodefense Strategy is a good first step – but more can and should be done. Most of the United States’ readiness is still more reactive and less proactive.

To improve biological defenses, two major steps should be taken:
First, the government should regulate and monitor synthetic biology research. For decades, agreements, accords, and tradition are the only things that have prevented people with nefarious intentions from developing bioweapons.[1] To date, those agreements have been largely successful with limited exceptions. However, since the recent diversification within the genetics community, genetic editing tools are no longer restricted to scientists working in government and university labs. Today, genetic editing kits are available for hobbyists, independent companies, and private scientists. While the open and unrestricted availability of such tools and research could almost certainly lead to scientific breakthroughs, it also drastically increases the probability of such research falling into the wrong hands and leading to deliberate weaponization of infectious agents. Such regulations would need to, at a minimum, require approval for research projects that are not authorized by government agencies.


A major, and valid, criticism is that research permits might become heavily politicized. To counter this, the approval process would have to go through an independent council of biological experts – not a Congressional committee. Second, the government needs to prioritize investments in public health infrastructure. The National Academy of Sciences released a report that identified one of the best solutions for mitigating concerns related to biological weapons of mass destruction is to invest in and develop a robust health system that would enable rapid response to the use of a bioweapon. [9] Practically, this might include more generous stipends for medical centers around the nations, publicly funded hospitals, and updating information sharing methods to protect medical research. Such investments could also enable medical professionals to identify unusual symptoms well in advance of a national epidemic. A well-funded public health system would improve the United States’ readiness and resilience. Even further, such a system would greatly improve the chances of identifying an epidemic or attack before it spreads to the point where it becomes unmanageable.


While these proposals do not guarantee any sort of silver bullet to prevent a biological attack, they would equip the United States to mitigate the risks and strengthen a struggling, neglected, ever-important sector.

[1] Dan Robitzski, “Synthetic biological weapons may be coming. Here’s how to fight them.,” Futurism, June 21, 2018, https://futurism.com/biologicalweapons-department-of-defense.
[2] Katherine Charlet, “The New Killer Pathogens: Countering the Coming Bioweapons Threat,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 17, 2018, https:// carnegieendowment.org/2018/04/17/newkiller-pathogens-countering-comingbioweapons-threat-pub-76009? fbclid=IwAR1U42M7ob7ZZbg4U5XZ3eH1E om-ZjTWZPQiTfeMhYpNh5Pgpjcsy3mz
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[3] Ian Sample, “Synthetic Biology Raises Risk of New Bioweapons, u.s. Report Warns,” The Guardian, June 19, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/ science/2018/jun/19/urgent-need-toprepare-for-manmade-virus-attacks-saysus-government-report.
[4] Ryan Cross, “Synthetic Biology Could Enable Bioweapons Development,” Chemical and Engineering News, June 19, 2018, https://cen.acs.org/biologicalchemistry/synthetic-biology/Syntheticbiology-enable-bioweaponsdevelopment/96/i26.
[5] Daniel Coates, “Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 6, 2018 https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ Newsroom/Testimonies/Final-2018-ATA–Unclassified—SASC.pdf.
[6] Loren Thompson, “The Threat of Biological Warfare Is Increasing, and the u.s. Isn’t Ready,” Forbes, April 9, 2018, https:// www.forbes.com/sites/ lorenthompson/2018/04/09/biowar-a-guideto-the-coming-plague-years/ #52c542915fe5.
[7] “National Biodefense Strategy,” The White House, accessed December 9, 2018, https://fas.org/irp/threat/cbw/biodefstrat.pdf? fbclid=IwAR2yg820yArC2Nb_EoyGXHRZl ECpV2zEGXT3jU3PDS9y943c4nOY48uIfk.
[8] Caroline Mortimer, “North Korea could be mass producing biological weapons to unleash smallpox and plague, report warns,” The Independent, October 23, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/ world/asia/north-korea-biological-weaponsbelfer-centre-pyongyang-nuclear-kim-jongun-smallpox-plague-nerve-gasa8015931.html
[9] Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2018)

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