By Justin Hurt
Any future approach to countering potential biological threats will require a multi-faceted, integrated effort by many players to ensure that all appropriate methodologies and scenarios are considered in developing policies and solutions. One such player that has not only significant expertise, but also a robust research and development capability in countering biological threats is the Department of Defense (DoD). Joined by its partner agencies in the national security enterprise, the DoD leads a wide-ranging portfolio of projects geared toward preventing, preparing for, and mitigating the possibility of a future biological attack or public health crisis.
In a discussion moderated by Dr. Jeffrey “Clem” Fortman of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense, several experts from the federal agencies associated with combating biological threats discussed emerging trends in the field of biodefense. Joined by Ms. Robin Wales of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Global Futures Office, Dr. Brad Ringeisen of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biotechnologies Office, and Dr. David Shepard of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, Dr. Fortman outlined the current DoD priorities and projects in the biodefense realm. The DoD’s multi-layered approach, informed by the June 2014 DoD Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), includes being the federal government’s technical lead for biothreat response, leveraging a range of internal and external experts, and interagency partners.
Collaboration between the internal service components of the DoD, including the Army, Air Force, and Navy provides the warfighter’s viewpoint on addressing biodefense needs in military environments. Through a series of ongoing studies and workshops, the services are providing perspectives to the myriad partners the DoD has in research and development, including bringing external experts and emerging leaders into the defense establishment through programs such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Technology Policy Fellows Program and the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship. The DoD is currently working with such experts and interagency partners on a final report sponsored by the National Academy of Science on “Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities posed by Synthetic Biology.” This document, with a framework to identify and describe gaps in knowledge and technology as well as generate ideas for mitigation options, is expected in a final format in late Spring 2018.
Ms. Wales, from DTRA, spoke to the benefits of scenario-based planning in providing insight into the range of possible futures for biological defense. Based in part on the work of such thinkers and advisers as Herman Kahn, Pierre Wack, and Peter Schwartz, and building on the work of Projects Evergreen and Horizon, DTRA’s scenario-based planning envisions four possible future worlds that provide a story to promote response innovation and imagination. Labeled as “A Hot Peace,” “Doctor Strangelove,” “A Slow Ride to Chaos,” and “A Long Time Coming,” these four possible futures mix geopolitical stability, WMD use, defense spending, and science and technology research to drive future response and policy thinking and develop future capabilities. This project, which is ongoing and informs the 5-year strategic plan for countering WMD at DTRA, is helping to inform the interagency collaborations that are critical to whole-of-government approaches to potential threats.
DARPA’s current approaches to biodefense range from developing rapid analysis and identification technologies to countermeasures and built-in biosafety measures. As discussed by Dr. Brad Ringeisen, DARPA continues to act as the defense department’s spearhead in scientific development, concentrating on synthetic biology defense, neurotechnology, diagnostics on demand (to include some incredible improvements in “organ on a chip” technologies), and rapid biosurveillance and threat assessment. Safe Gene technology provides a promising pathway to building in safety and reversibility to gene editing, and the use of pre-deployment monitoring for the warfighter, as well as biomarkers may provide not only rapid medical response but also rapid therapeutic measures for those affected by biological agents.
Finally, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as a primary partner to the DoD in biodefense policy and research programming, is improving government focus on threat awareness and responsive countermeasures for domestic concerns. DHS’ Dr. Dave Shepard identified several priority projects for the agency, such as horizon scanning for chemical and biological threats, the use of modeling for trends and discontinuities, and building a strategic map for the chem-bio threat landscape. Current trends being developed include the democratization of biotechnology and knowledge, migration of chemical industry, small-scale chem-bio in the secondary market, and illicit trafficking of agents and delivery platforms. Through DHS’ BioFutures Working Group and Engineering Biology Research Consortium, the interagency community is working toward a better understanding of the full scope of threats and countermeasures in the homeland. DHS’ goal is to sponsor a future security track in their periodic meetings and bring together a collaborative group in coordination with the DoD to address these threat trends.
The DoD Biodefense Policy panel provided substantial insight into just a few of the many programs and projects ongoing in the defense establishment, specifically addressing biodefense issues, trends, and research. What was obvious from the input of the entire panel is that cooperation, information and resource sharing, and a collaborative approach is the future for the field and the best way to get to optimal solutions for addressing emerging biological threats.