The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD Candidate

Introduction

On May 28th, the Council on Strategic Risks hosted a timely webinar to discuss The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic. This webinar brought together a diverse panel of experts areas from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), film and media, biotechnology and data science, and public heath to discuss how the pandemic highlights existing gaps in addressing natural and potentially man-made biological threats; and understanding the obstacles and potential solutions to address future man-made and natural biological threats.

The panelists included the Honorable Andrew C. “Andy” Weber, Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the Pentagon; Max Brooks, the author of World War Z and Devolution, as well as a Nonresident Fellow at The Modern War Institute and the Atlantic Council; Dr. Alexander Titus, Chief Strategy Officer at the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) and Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks; and George Mason’s very-own Dr. Saskia Popescu, Senior Infection Preventionist and Epidemiologist at HonorHealth and Adjunct Professor at Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

The event was moderated by Dr. Natasha E. Bajema, Founder and CEO of Nuclear Spin Cycle Publishing and Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks; and Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks.

Gaps in Biopreparedness and Biodefense

One main area the panelists and moderators focused on was understanding how the failures to detect, mitigate, and respond to COVID-19 may make a future biological weapon attack more likely. Mr. Weber warned how easily COVID-19 has spread through naval ships and other branches of the armed services, which enhances the allure of weaponizing biology to undermine operational readiness. Mr. Weber also argued that the cheapness and ease of developing biological weapons make them even more alluring in the modern day. These incentives, in turn, weaken deterrence against the use of offensive biological weapons.

Mr. Brooks echoed Mr. Weber’s thought and added how the superiority of U.S. conventional forces drives adversaries to find indirect ways to engage in conflict. Mr. Brooks noted that the ease of development and use of biological weapons makes it potentially attractive to use in a variety of situations – from deploying weapons at ports to shut down trade to even targeting American citizens to erode morale in the military.

Dr. Popescu expanded the conversation to include how the pandemic shed light on gaps in public health and its ability to detect, respond to, and recover from a large-scale bio-event. She highlighted how public health is expected to achieve the ideal (such as having testing every individual) in a reality where there are only a finite number of tests available, and a finite number of facilities and individuals to administer them. Dr. Popescu added preparedness is a difficult sell to senior hospital administrators since it requires private companies like hospitals to permanently assume additional overhead.

Dr. Titus discussed how the perception of technology as an end in and of itself, rather than a means to enhancing an organization’s mission, has slowed the adoption of emerging technologies like synthetic biology and big data science. These delays have significantly cost the U.S. in its ability to deter, detect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from biological events. Dr. Titus presented how the relationship between biotechnology development and application is not a one-to-one relationship: a biotech development that allows a more efficient way to produce molecules of interest in yeast cells does not mean that technology has to be limited to a single molecule of interest. Rather, he viewed investment and development in biotechnology as an opportunity to mitigate infinite threats with infinite capabilities.

Obstacles and Solutions to Future Biothreats

One major obstacle all the panelists discussed was the issue of sustained efforts and funding. All the panelists pointed out how money is thrown at an issue in any crisis setting. This includes biological events like Amerithrax in 2001 and the Ebola outbreak from 2014 – 2016. However, biodefense suffers significantly once the crisis passes and the funding streams dry up. Therefore, panelists argued that funding alone was insufficient to meet the biothreats challenges of the future – current and future Administrations need to consider biothreats a priority, with stable funding streams to match.

Mr. Weber highlighted his personal experiences as the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs during the Obama administration to display the bureaucratic and administrative complexities of addressing biothreats both domestically and internationally. He particularly emphasized a need to increase interagency communications and cooperation within the Department of Defense as well as other agencies to implement an all-hands approach to deal with future biological events.

Mr. Brooks saw a growing gap between citizens and policymakers as a major obstacle. Compared to the American citizens in the past, he viewed current citizens as disengaged from serious issues like biothreats and that this disengagement was encouraged, whether deliberately or not, by U.S. leadership. Mr. Brooks thought it was essential to bridge this gap, increase biodefense education, and cultivate buy-in from citizens if policymakers want to take concrete steps towards a safer world. He drew from his vast experience in helping shape the social consciousness to suggest making biodefense topics more tangible and impactful to the average citizen through fiction books, television shows, and movies, and recruiting influential celebrities as spokespeople for biodefense causes.

Dr. Popescu expressed concerns about communicating accurate information to the general public and a need to make this information that captures the general public’s attention. She also warned of potentially unscrupulous salesmen and armchair experts – individuals and companies that may exploit COVID-19 misinformation to sell “snake-oil” products ranging from sensationalist information to harmful cures, remedies, and cleaning agents to citizens. Finally, she strongly emphasized the need to discuss topics ranging from safer practices to operating in an ever-changing, uncertainty-filled environment as states begin to re-open after months of having citizens shelter in place.

Dr. Titus, along with other members of the panel, highlighted how inadvertent and deliberate misinformation is a major obstacle to getting buy-in and creating a plan of action to address biothreats. He, much in line with Dr. Popescu, noted that science communication alone is not sufficient to deal with misinformation campaigns on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. He asserted that disinformation spreads because it provides pay-offs to the recipient that factual information delivered in a dry, technical manner fails to deliver on. Compared to journal papers and books that experts often operate in, Dr. Titus noted that as little as 280 characters (2 tweets) is sufficient to sow doubt. Dr. Titus advocated for experts to find new ways to communicate with the public – new ways that do not require expertise to understand what experts are communicating.

Conclusion & Consensus

What is clear is the U.S. has a long way to go in addressing biological threats from natural and man-made sources. Further, the U.S. needs to adapt to new realities – a time where citizens’ trust of government is significantly lower, where citizens actively protest experts and their recommendations, and where misinformation is one tap on a smartphone away. And while the solutions are difficult to implement, the panelists and moderators of this timely webinar all believe that the end goal is worth it: a potential world where biological threats are a relic of history, as opposed to the unavoidable fate of humanity’s future.

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