Biodefense Faculty Member Charles Blair on Syria

(originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

The thin red line

By Charles P. Blair and Mila Johns| 26 March 2013

Article Highlights

  • An attack on the village of Khan al-Assal is the latest in a number of incidents during which the use of chemical weapons has been claimed by either, or both, sides of the Syrian civil war.
  • In reporting chemical attacks, citizen journalists have apparently conflated lethal and non-lethal chemical agents, creating the perception that the United States has failed to act, even though President Obama’s “red line” warning against chemical weapons use has been crossed.
  • US policy toward Syria may unintentionally have helped erode the international taboo against chemical weapons use; to buttress that taboo, the United States now must make clear what would and would not constitute crossing the chemical warfare red line, in Syria and elsewhere.

Both opposition forces and the Syrian government have alleged that chemical weapons were used in last Tuesday’s attack on the village of Khan al-Assal, bringing to the fore one of the most potentially far-reaching of the many dangers that have arisen during Syria’s civil war. Now entering its third year, the Syrian revolt — by far the longest uprising of the Arab Spring — is the first in history that threatens to violently topple a government armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This unique case naturally precipitates profound concerns that elements of Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical agents and munitions will find themselves in the hands of insurgents or terrorist groups. To date, however, the West has largely ignored the threat of non-state acquisition of such arms, instead focusing its concern around the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

With more than 70,000 dead and over one million Syrians displaced by civil war, international pressure mounts for more substantive intervention by Western powers. Even absent confirmed use of WMD, France and the United Kingdom are moving toward greater support of the disparate forces fighting the Assad regime.

In contrast, the United States has refrained from direct military support of the opposition. At the same time, President Obama has clearly, directly declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria as the red line that would call for substantive action from the United States. While avoiding any carte blanche backing of opposition forces that include significant numbers of jihadists and other terrorists, the US policy places significant emphasis on reinforcing the international moral norm against the use of weaponry that is considered “beyond the pale.” But recent allegations highlight the potential unintended consequences of this strategy: Khan al-Assal is the latest in a growing series of incidents in the country during which the use of chemical weapons has been claimed by either, or both, sides of the conflict.

Undoubtedly anticipating that violation of this boundary will spur American intervention, the Syrian rebels have significant motivation to charge the Assad regime with the use of chemical weapons. Conversely, the Syrian government has a vested interest in casting the rebels as a fringe element willing to use any means necessary to overthrow the regime, including violating the opprobrium against chemical weapons use. The extreme stakes created by the American red line make it is incumbent upon the United States to articulate precisely what is meant by the term chemical weapon — which, under international law, includes non-lethal agents as well as more well-known and lethal agents such as sarin and VX.

Given the general absence of foreign media from the conflict, reports of chemical attacks increasingly are based on citizen journalism. As Western news standards evolve with the growth of social media, the nuances that differentiate classes of chemical weapons appear to be dissolving. The public conflation of lethal and non-lethal chemical agents increasingly creates the perception that the United States has failed to act, despite evidence that President Obama’s red line has been crossed. In short, US policy may unintentionally have created a situation in which the public is desensitized to chemical weapons use, eroding the international taboo against them. To buttress and even strengthen that taboo, the United States now must make crystal clear to the international community what would and would not constitute crossing the chemical warfare red line, in Syria and elsewhere.

Many chemical weapons, no proven use. Most experts assume that the Assad regime possesses a vast and sophisticated chemical arsenal. Chemical agents most frequently cited as components of the Syrian arsenal include mustard gas, a blistering agent with properties that historically have generated large numbers of casualties, the vast majority requiring long-term medical care. A persistent chemical, mustard agent also creates long-term battlefield contamination. Vastly more toxic and lethal than mustard agent, sarin nerve agent is reportedly easily readied for use by the Syrian military for delivery via aircraft, artillery, and the country’s 100 to 200 Scud missiles. Syria likely also possesses VX nerve agents; several hundred times more lethal than sarin, VX is the most deadly of all chemical agents. Apart from these three agents, some experts expand their assessment of Syrian’s probable chemical arsenal to include choking agents such as chlorine gas and phosgene, which, according to a 1997 report by the US Surgeon General and US Army, was last used militarily in 1918. The latter agent, the effects of which appear only after a delay, was responsible for 80 percent of those killed by chemicals during World War I.

Last week’s incident in Khan al-Assal, the most dramatic to date, is the latest in a series of accusations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian opposition, with counterclaims by the Syrian regime. The attack is reported to have killed at least 31 people and injured more than 100; US and other Western officials place responsibility for the attack with the Syrian government. Still, among the dead were 16 pro-Assad soldiers, and Damascus blames opposition forces for the incident, claiming they used a rocket laden with chemicals. Government officials have requested a UN investigation into chemical weapons use in Tuesday’s incident “by the terrorists groups operating in Syria.” The same day, opposition forces reportedly claimed that Syrian “chemical rockets” had also struck the village of Ataibah near Damascus.

Before recent events, two purported chemical attacks in Homs in December 2012 generated unprecedented allegations of chemical weapons use, with some observers concluding that the American red line had been crossed. In the first instance, on December 6, victims were allegedly targeted with white phosphorus munitions fired by Syrian military helicopters. Two weeks later, on December 23, another incident occurred in Homs, killing at least seven and reportedly wounding more than 70; opposition forces assert that the attack used poisonous gases. Despite some journalistic assertions that nerve agents were responsible, a US State Department investigation concluded that no chemical weapons were used. Demonstrating the need to differentiate lethal and non-lethal chemical agents, US officials reportedly believe that casualties from the December 23 Homs incident are linked to Syrian military “misuse [of] a riot-control gas.”

No internationally sanctioned investigation has yet confirmed the use of chemical agents in any of these incidents. Unverified accounts and video footage of casualties purportedly caused by chemical weapons offer virtually no evidence that lethal chemical agents, including those agents likely constituting the Syrian arsenal, were used. Mustard agent, for example, dramatically affects the victim’s skin, eyes, and internal tracks. None of the filmed victims of last week’s Khan al-Assal attack evidenced the effects of such a blistering agent. Moreover, given its low volatility and high level of persistence, its presence would require victims to be handled with extreme care to avoid secondary contamination. Actions by medical staff treating the victims of the Khan al-Assal attack are incongruous with concerns about secondary contamination, and there are no known reports of subsequent negative health effects on first responders or hospital personnel. Similarly, the effects of sarin or VX nerve agents — manifest, for example, by a victim’s twitching — are absent from video of the Khan al-Assal incident. Like mustard agent, VX also is extremely persistent. Even sarin, which evaporates at a rate similar to water, is persistent enough to cause secondary contamination during transport and treatment in ambulances and hospitals, as evidenced during the response to a 1995 terror attack on the Tokyo subway. Doctors and civilians filmed at the Aleppo hospital treating the victims of the Khan al-Assal incident spoke of the agent emanating from the rocket, post-detonation, as being a powder. But choking agents, including chlorine (the smell of which reportedly was present at the Khan al-Assal attack), are delivered in a gaseous state.

No evidence yet exists to support the accusation that the Assad regime had used traditional chemical warfare agents — that is, those substances posing danger to humans and marked by exceptional lethality.

Evidence does point toward Syrian use of chemical agents designed to be non-lethal — those that are not entirely banned under the international law. With regard to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), certain agents for purposes of “[l]aw enforcement including domestic riot-control purposes” are permitted. Riot-control agents, commonly lumped together in the public consciousness as tear gas or mace, cause rapid, short-lived irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, producing symptoms such as shortness of breath, choking, rashes, and temporary blindness due to swelling of the eyes. Riot-control agents are not banned under the CWC and are used by governments throughout the world, including the United States.

Loopholes in the CWC allow for use of other non-lethal agents, including so-called incapacitants, for domestic law enforcement and, in other interpretations, counterterrorism activities. In contrast to riot-control agents, the effects of incapacitants can last for days after exposure. Moreover, their effects are psychological or mental, designed to leave the victim confused, disabled, or, in general, ineffective. (Although Syria is not generally thought to possess such agents, some have theorized that the Assad regime may use incapacitants to test the waters of international reaction.) Also not addressed by the CWC is white phosphorus, an incendiary chemical agent that has been traditionally utilized by militaries to provide ground cover for operations as well as to illuminate targets. Its use as an offensive weapon lies in a legal gray area vis-a-vis chemical weapons law; it can produce severe chemical burns, irritation of mucus membranes (particularly of the eyes), and even death. From Homs forward to last week’s attack in Khan al-Assal, the symptoms displayed by victims of alleged chemical weapons are not of a severity that would evince white phosphorus use, though the mere mention of white phosphorus by a doctor treating victims of the Khan-al-Assad incident adds to the growing scrutiny of that chemical. Also, US responses to reports of Syrian use of white phosphorus are complicated by past American and Israeli military operations in which white phosphorus was used.

Strengthening the taboo. A disturbing pattern is emerging in Syria. Each purported use of chemical weapons — instantly communicated by the opposition, citizen journalists, or the Syrian government — is left unresolved, as demonstrated most recently with the Khan al-Assal attack. If chemicals were used in any of incidents to date, they were agents — white phosphorus, riot-control agents, and incapacitants — that the CWC either conditionally allows, addresses in a manner that creates a legal gray zone, or ignores altogether. Atop these realities, the nature of the Syrian conflict has severely curtailed the ability of traditional authorities to verify or refute allegations of chemical weapons use, regardless of type, often leaving international audiences uncertain at best as to whether the United States’ red line has been crossed. This dynamic likely contributes to the number of instances in which the use of chemical weapons has been alleged. More important, repeated unresolved claims of chemical weapons use slowly normalizes the concept that chemical weapons can be used, eroding the taboo against chemical warfare and desensitizing the public to its horrors.

The undermining of this moral prohibition relates directly to the discourse surrounding “non-lethal” chemical agents such as riot-control agents, incapacitants, and white phosphorus. While the technical and legal classifications of these agents are, one assumes, crucial to international leaders, the distinctions are lost on the layperson. With the United States’ casus belli inextricably predicated on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and the future of the chemical warfare taboo in the balance, it is incumbent on the Obama administration to clearly articulate what definitions are being used in determining whether its red line has been breached, and to make a compelling case for why the use of certain chemical agents is not grounds for another US military foray into the Middle East.

Let’s talk about it…

By Jomana Musmar
Ms. Musmar is a PhD student in the Biodefense program at George Mason.

In a letter published on January 23, 2013, in Nature and Science, forty scientists announced an end to the self-imposed moratorium on research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza transmission. The moratorium was first triggered by the controversial publication of two H5N1 experiments in 2011.  In their letter, the scientists provide two major conclusions: that the aims of the moratorium have been reached, and that the benefits of conducting research on H5N1 outweigh the risks. They emphasize that scientists have a public health responsibility to conduct life-saving research, and that they are fully aware of the high risks involved in its potential misuse.  They also highlight that the moratorium helped foster robust global dialogue on the benefits and existing efforts to secure this research, in addition to the formal review of international policies.

Two such policies have been recently released by the US government (both available at The first is a White House proposed policy-update aimed at maximizing the benefits of life sciences research. The other is a US Department of Health and Human Services draft framework guiding funding decisions for conducting H5N1 research. The first of seven criteria in the draft framework to determine funding is that “the virus anticipated to be generated could be produced through a natural evolutionary process.”  This criterion echoes the final key point in the scientist’s letter in support of their conclusion–that the risks of an emerging H5N1 capable of mammalian transmission already exist in nature.

Although some may argue that the year-long moratorium has impeded the advancement of science and research related to influenza, I believe it has provided several benefits: (1) An opportunity for scientists to publicly voice their opinions and debate the topic on a global scale; (2) a chance for decision-makers to renew efforts at globally standardizing frameworks and guidelines related to research that present international security concerns; and (3) an increase in awareness on the public health benefits and security concerns of research in the life sciences.

In conclusion, the debate on the risks versus the benefits of controversial life science research is necessary to ensure that all stakeholders are participating in open dialogue, and that the frameworks drafted to help guide this sort of research are nimble enough to keep up with the pace of scientific advancements.

Biodefense in 2012: Year in Review

2012 has been an interesting year, and contrary to all apocalyptic predictions and Hollywood blockbusters, here we still stand. And look back.  Here, in no uncertain terms, is the best and worst of 2012 for the broad and beautiful field of biodefense (all further alliteration will be kept to a minimum). Check out the slideshow below for a quick view, with all of our carefully selected choices explained in detail below.

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Biggest Controversy
While this technically started in December of last year, enough of the saga also known as “To Publish or Not to Publish” occurred this year that we don’t feel bad including it. The uproar surrounding the potential publication of two studies involving H5N1 and ferrets (“Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets” and “Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets “) was unprecedented. Setting aside for one moment the claims regarding exaggeration, the more controversial of the two studies sought to genetically engineer a strain of H5N1 to make it capable of aersolized transmission between humans (the virus as it occurs currently in nature isn’t effectively transmitted through aerosol). For the first time ever, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity stepped in and asked the authors of both papers (one of which was based in the Netherlands) to hold publication while they reviewed them  for reasons of security.  Although both papers have subsequently been published, the controversy brought the issue of dual-use research into sharp detail.

2nd Biggest Controversy
#2 was a close enough runner-up to merit mention. The decision on the part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to include SARS on the select agent list, as well as the potential inclusion of H5N1, has created a good deal of contentious debate within the scientific community. Critics argue that the new regulations will significantly shrink the number of labs allowed to work with the pathogens, limiting both the reaction capacity in a pandemic and the general progression of knowledge. Proponents, however, argue that the more stringent regulations limit the likelihood of dangerous information on weaponizing the pathogens falling into the hands of terrorists. Will 2013 bring a resolution? We’ll see.

Most Exciting New Technology
While there were many honorable mentions (sensing the smallest virus particlesmRNA vaccines) the one which struck us most was Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s military uniforms capable of repelling both biological and chemical agents. The uniforms are made of a carbon nanotube fabric which is capable of switching quickly from a breathable “open” state to a more rigid, “protective” state when an agent is detected. The fabric is still a ways away from large-scale production, but the potential of the idea to be adapted for civilian use landed it on our list.

Most Beleaguered Government Program
BioWatch. With or without the L.A. Times’ laser-like interest in the program, BioWatch has had its fair share of troubles. Developing a good assay means finding the ideal place along the two axises of  sensitivity and selectivity, and BioWatch seems to have difficulty with both. First came news that the program’s multiplex assays, which were used for two years before being phased out, were  not selective enough to distinguish between virulent pathogens and their innocuous cousins. This was followed by news that the sensitivity of many of the detectors led to an “unacceptable number of false positives”. While the Department of Homeland Security seems to be standing by the program, funding for its Generation 3 iteration remains uncertain.

Best New(ish) Legislation
Although it hasn’t passed the Senate yet, in December the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (H.R. 6672) passed the House handily, in a 383-16 vote. The Act, which seeks to bolster medical countermeasures in response to a potential CBRN attack, reauthorizes portions of  Bioshield and the 2005 PAHPA.

Most Disturbing Rumor
It’s not often that governments admit to possessing secret stockpiles of biological weapons, so when they do it tends to be noteworthy. Especially if said government also happens to be embroiled in a bloody civil war. Despite the insistence of Bashar al Assad’s regime that “no chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used”, the announcement of the stockpiles sparked immediate debate in the international community. Pundits weighed in from all sides (“Syria’s Assad Will Use Chemical Weapons, Says Former General, Now Defector” vs “Why Assad Won’t Use Chemical Weapons“). Meanwhile the war has raged on, with concerns mounting as to the ongoing security of the stockpiles, and unconfirmed rumors emerging that Assad has used chemical weapons on rebel forces.

Here’s a few things we’re watching out for in 2013

Second Least Popular Day in April: the 3rd
April 3rd, 2013 is the day on which new Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines regarding labs working with Tier 1 pathogens go into effect. Under the new rules, non-Tier 1 labs have one week to handle samples of  Tier 1 agents before they must either destroy them or pass them along to a Tier 1 – licensed lab. This is all fine and dandy until further verification or comparison of those destroyed samples are needed. Between this and the SARS addition, neither HHS nor the CDC is in contention for most popular government agency.

Best Pieces from the GMU Biodefense Blog

– Destroying Rinderpest: Dr. Roger Breeze, Former Director of Plum Island, Comments – Dr. Breeze is the former Director of Plum Island, current President of the Centuar Science group, and GMU adjunt faculty member.

– An Evolving Threat vs A Stodgy Bureaucracy  – Julia Duckett is a current GMU Biodefense PhD student – her review of the NRC report, “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology”, is both incisive and fair.

Most Exciting Upcoming Film
In the spirit of the festive season, we’d like to end on a happier note (please notice Ebola was not mentioned once this entire post, despite the outbreak in Kampala and the rumors of aerosol transmission via pigs). The resurgence of zombies in popular culture definitely gives us better street cred here at GMU Biodefense (our unofficial tagline is “Preventing the Zombie Apocalypse since 2003”).  And while I’m certain many of you biodefense enthusiasts out there are more excited about seeing the film World War Z (global virus leads to zombie apocalypse), if you only see one zombie film next year, make it Warm Bodies. Can love cure the walking dead? See it and let us know (or better yet, send us a review!)

fireworks02And that’s our list! Thank you to all you faithful readers (hi to those of you in the UK and Russia!), it’s been a pleasure writing for you.

As always, send us your comments, suggestions, and/or questions. Otherwise, wishing everyone a pathogen-free New Year!

Destroying Rinderpest: Former Director of Plum Island Comments


Last week the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) called for the destruction of remaining stocks of the eradicated cattle virus, Rinderpest. Commenting on the news is Dr. Roger Breeze, GMU Biodefense adjunct faculty, current President of the Centaur Science Group,  and former Director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

Dr. Roger Breeze:

“In 2011, the developing world celebrated global eradication of Rinderpest, a lethal viral disease of cattle responsible for catastrophic outbreaks in Europe that started with the Mongol invasions, frame our emergency response to epidemics to this day, and were the direct triggers for establishment of the veterinary profession and the International Office of Epizootics (OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health). Beyond catastrophic were the consequences of the Great African Rinderpest epidemic that began when an invading Italian Army brought Rinderpest-infected cattle from India into Ethiopia in 1887. At least 90% of cattle died and the infection spread throughout Africa, depriving people of their food, transport, draft animals and family life-savings at a stroke and precipitating a severe famine, enormous mortality and wars that rippled through the continent for a decade.

Like smallpox, Rinderpest was eradicated with 20th century technologies – a live attenuated vaccine made in the developing world and simple immunological tests – backed by a surprisingly inexpensive but sustained international effort based on grass-roots capabilities and enthusiastic participation of the herdsmen most concerned. The world community that conceived, funded and sustained these efforts deserves enormous credit.

Now we face a different challenge – accidental or deliberate release of Rinderpest into a global cattle population that is totally susceptible and through much of Africa and Asia ill supported by veterinary surveillance services. Live attenuated Rinderpest vaccine strains and virulent challenge strains exist in laboratories and vaccine facilities formerly engaged in the global eradication campaign. The OIE and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are leading international efforts to destroy remaining stocks of Rinderpest virus or to transfer these to secure Biosafety level 3 laboratories so that unauthorized access to virus is prevented and any work is conducted under appropriate biological safety. Clearly this is something to be encouraged, although one wishes for a somewhat stronger verb. The OIE and FAO are also developing a contingency plan (as yet unpublished) for a vaccine bank and diagnostic support should an outbreak occur. This is also a wise investment.

But the OIE is the World Organization for Animal Health not Animal Biodefense and OIE and FAO both operate on shoestring budgets that do not allow for a global Rinderpest preparedness plan that can be sustained over decades to come. A deliberate attack on North American or European animal agriculture with native or synthetic Rinderpest virus would cause significant damage, although nothing like historic outbreaks (there is a saying that “a good barb wire fence will stop Rinderpest”). The tragedy would be a deliberate release that re-infected the developing world to reverse the major economic gains of the past 20 years and condemn the poorest of the poor to hunger, starvation and death. President Obama’s National Strategy for Biosurveillance and the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats clearly set out what we as a nation need to work towards at home and abroad with our international partners to counter these natural and deliberate threats to people, animals and plants. Let’s finish the job with Rinderpest by ensuring a global preparedness capability that stands the test of time.”

Charles Blair: Why Assad Won’t Use His Chemical Weapons

Check out GMU adjunct faculty member and Federation of American Scientists Senior Fellow Charles Blair’s comprehensive piece on Foreign Policy about Assad’s weapons.

“Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, concerns over the country’s chemical arsenal have largely reflected the fear that terrorists might steal them in the chaotic aftermath of Bashar al Assad’s overthrow. Military use against the Free Syrian Army seemed less likely, largely because the use of unconventional weapons would violate international law and norms. If it broke that taboo, the regime would risk losing Russian and Chinese support, legitimizing foreign military intervention, and, ultimately, hastening its own end. As one Syrian official said, “We would not commit suicide.”

But this week chemical anxieties shifted. President Barack Obama warned Syria that “[t]he use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable” — a comment echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, both of whom said that use of the arsenal would cross a “red line” for the United States. Despite these admonitions — and a barrage of reports that Syria is preparing to deploy its chemical arsenal — it remains doubtful that Damascus is at the point where the use of chemical weapons against rebels makes tactical or strategic sense.”

Read more here.

GMU Biodefense Perspective: Changes to the Select Agent List

By Tom Krietzer, Biodefense MS student
X-ray of a SARS patient
X-ray of a SARS patient’s lungs

The bio-security/ scientific progress dilemma is not one to go away. Obviously, those charged with bio-security will always attempt to ensure that only certain people have access to these agents. Those persons with access need to be vetted for security concerns for obvious reasons.

The scientific community will always feel that security/safety professionals stymie scientific progress for unnecessary rules and regulations. Those within the scientific community regularly showcase annoyance towards safety/security experts because the inherent openness of science contradicts the operational security requirements in bio-security.
My opinion, the change is warranted to ensure that those with access are vetted for proper security concerns. Scientists may see this as a detriment, but we need to ensure that those who have access should have access.
Disagree with Tom? The FAR is accepting comments on the rule change now – give them a piece of your mind (it can be a friendly piece) by commenting on the rule change here.

An Evolving Threat vs a Stodgy Bureaucracy

By Julia Duckett, GMU Biodefense PhD Program

A review of the National Research Council report, “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology”

The National Research Council recently released the results of a study commissioned by the US Department of Defense to review DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) and to “identify the core capabilities in science and technology that must be supported by the program.”[1]  The results in “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology” indicate a disorganized collection of DOD offices ineffective at accomplishing the CBDP’s mission to enable US Armed Forces to “fight and win decisively in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear environments.”  The study, attending only to the chemical and biological aspects of the CBDP, seeks to do three things:  define the mission and role of CBDP, identify the technology the program must support and determine whether the technology should be pursued in a DOD lab or elsewhere, and address the efficiency of the CBDP’s organizational structure.  The study found that as the CBDP currently operates, it is unable to effectively equip US Armed Forces for chemical and biological operating environments; the NRC suggested major fundamental changes to improve the program’s effectiveness.

Out of a long list of formal findings in the report, a few emerge as fundamental challenges the program must overcome.  First, the mission of the program is too broad and the strategy for accomplishing its goals is unclear.  The program encompasses a variety of DOD offices, each responsible for different aspects of research, development, and acquisition, and each office has a unique perspective on the purpose of the program.  Second, most of the core technology the NRC identified as necessary to support the program’s mission is available in non-DOD labs including labs associated both with other government agencies and the private sector.  However, the connection between the researchers in those labs and the users of the technology sponsored by CBDP is weak.  As a result, funding is not focused, products are not directly applicable to the users’ needs, testing and evaluation of new products is faulty, and there is little opportunity to generate new and innovative solutions.  Third, funding and management are unstable, which prevents the development of an integrated suite of tools for military personnel to use in a chemical or biological environment.  Particularly a problem for medical products, the frequent turnover in leadership and short-term projection of funds stymies the ability to bring a solution from the R&D phase through to the acquisition phase.

Of note, the report does not distinguish between naturally occurring and man-made biological environments.  This reflects the Obama Administration’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats regardless of their source.  The report notes civilian as well as military benefits to advances in the technology for medical protection and response to outbreaks.  This should encourage collaboration between the CBDP and pharmaceutical companies – an important relationship identified by the study.  Emphasis was placed on integrating non-DOD entities into CBDP processes to facilitate a close relationship between researchers and users.  This relationship is challenged, however, by the desire to protect sensitive information on both sides.  Though this may be a surmountable challenge, there is also a need to consider the United States’ international treaty commitments, particularly regarding the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).  Other countries could potentially question the legitimacy of mobilizing a broad and collective effort to streamline research into bioweapons-related pathogens under BWC restrictions.

Ultimately, the NRC report found that in order to effectively accomplish the mission of enabling the US military to operate in chemical and biological environments, the CBDP must make major changes to the organization of the program and the level of integration among relevant parties.  The report states; “tweaking the management or refocusing a few projects will not be sufficient,” rather, a new way of thinking about the problem and how to organize the response is needed.  Following the release of the report, Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense, Gerald Parker, in an interview with Foreign Policy, acknowledged his office is taking this report seriously.  However, he says, this is nothing new, the findings are a “natural evolution” as the threat itself evolves.[2]  That may be precisely the point the report attempts to make; after all these years of working to prepare our armed forces to operate in a contaminated environment, we still lack the flexibility and mobility to respond to an evolving threat.  In 2007 the Government Accountability Office released a report stating military units responsible for responding to a chemical or biological event, in the US or abroad, are ill prepared to perform their mission.[3]  It is evident a complete change of approach to chemical and biological preparedness is necessary – the question that remains is how to impose flexibility and adaptability on stodgy bureaucracy in order to reflect the flexible and adaptable threat.

[1]  National Research Council, “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense and Technology,” National Academies Press, 2012.

[2] Baron, Kevin, “Pentagon behind on predicting chemical, biological threats,”  September 24, 2012;

[3] “Management Actions Are Needed to Close the Gap between Army Chemical Unit Preparedness and Stated National Priorities,” GAO-07-143, January 2007.

National Strategy for Biosurveillance: Anything New?

Reviewed by Siddha Hover (GMU Biodefense PhD program)

The Obama administration published the National Strategy for Biosurveillance on July 31st of this year. The Strategy seeks to lay the foundation for the forthcoming biosurveillance strategic implementation plan, set to be published before the end of 2012.  The self-expressed goal of the Biosurveillance Strategy is to provide “a well-integrated national biosurveillance enterprise that saves lives by providing essential information for better decisionmaking at all levels”. Although official recognition of the need for effective biosurveillance is important, the strategy has two key flaws; a general lack of originality and an over-broadening of that which constitutes biosurveillance.

Before the flaws of the Biosurveillance Strategy can be examined, however, a cursory overview of its content is necessary. The Strategy employs rhetorical mechanisms of  “guiding principles”, “core functions” and “enablers” to present an introduction to US biosurveillance goals.  Emphasizing the use of “existing, multipurpose capabilities” the strategy presents four key national goals – discerning the environment, identifying essential information, alerting decision makers, and forecasting. These goals are enabled by the aptly titled “enablers”, which include the integration of capabilities, capacity building, encouraging innovation, and strengthening interactions across multiple sectors.

These concepts are indeed relevant. Cross-sector information sharing is indeed crucial to effective biosurveillance, as is innovation in detection technologies. However, these and similar suggestions have already been made reiteratively over the last decade, by almost all relevant stakeholders, in relation both to biological threats specifically and terrorism writ-large. Gregory Koblentz, in his book Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security, published in 2009, calls explicitly for innovative “detection, protection, and treatment technologies”.  The 9/11 Commission Report, published in 2004, has entire sections dedicated to the need for increased cross-sector information sharing. The choice to pursue status-quo principles, core functions, and enablers of the Strategy is not a negative reflection on the content itself, and there is merit in the argument that these suggestions remain pertinent. However,  the lack of originality in the Strategy is nonetheless disheartening and concerning. Disheartening because the superficial treatment of the need for improvements in our national biosurveillance could be interpreted as official ambivalence. Concerning because the most virulent diseases, whether manufactured by terrorists or reassorted in pigs, are often characterized by a devastating aptitude for change.

The second flaw within the Strategy is the broadening of the concept of biosurveillance.  Biosurveillance is defined as “the process of gathering, integrating, interpreting, and communicating essential information related to all-hazard threats or disease activity affecting human, animal, or plant health…”, where all-hazard is associated with all chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attacks.  This Strategy takes this definition of biosurveillance and broadens it to include “emerging infectious diseases, pandemics, agricultural threats, and food-borne illnesses”. By positing itself as a continuation of both the National Security Strategy and the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, the National Biosurveillance Strategy effectively securitizes all wide-scale health concerns.  This broadening is problematic for a number of reasons, the foremost being a dilution of that which constitutes a “threat” almost to the point of meaningless. Processing the vast amount of information  on intentional threats alone is already extremely challenging for the national security apparatus. The mandate to monitor all incidents of disease unnecessarily adds to this vast burden while expending limited security resources, leaving us less able to address immanent biological threats and exigencies.

The detrimental impact of this broadening is further visible when analyzing the Strategy’s policy suggestions. For instance, the aforementioned goal to “indentify and integrate essential information” encompasses within it the suggested development of a “discrete set of key questions to speed incident detection and awareness”. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks (Amerithrax) illustrate the difficulty in developing such a discreet set of questions. Despite occurring in the weeks following 9/11, and despite the staggered timing of the attacks, two of the latter Amerithrax victims still died due to misdiagnosis. Bacillus anthracis, like many of the other select agents, presents very similarly to pneumonia, making its initial diagnosis difficult. Thus, just as it remains difficult to synthesize a single set of questions to exclusively detect the symptoms of one, relatively uncommon disease, any set of questions which is expected to detect all potential effects from CBRN, emerging infectious diseases, pandemics, and food-bourne illnesses would be meaningless.

All criticisms aside, it should be kept in mind that the Biosurveillance Strategy is the first of its kind.  The lack of originality could be interpreted as a summation of past precedent. The broadening of the scope of biosurveillance  could be interpreted as recognition of the need for effective pandemic preparedness. As a first draft, then, while it definitely needs work, it’s very existence is a step in the right direction.