Biological ticking time bombs: Lessons from COVID-19

a photo of Ebola medical staff

Like most Americans, the scope and scale of the damage caused by COVID-19 exceeded some of my deepest fears for the security of the United States. This virus doesn’t know if we are Democratic or Republican, our religious preferences, or our country of origin. What it has done, however, is expose a grave national security vulnerability to biothreats. Our heightened awareness of potentially catastrophic biothreats has reshaped the national security landscape and the United States should be more prepared to prevent and respond to them in the future.

While we struggle to contain the spread of this virus, the terrifying lesson for terrorists and rogue actors is that they may not need suicide vests, or nuclear material and high-tech delivery vehicles to bring an economic powerhouse to its knees; they could achieve similarly destructive aims simply through access to a dangerous pathogen.

I’m deeply concerned that the lessons our adversaries have learned from COVID-19 includes the potential for pathogens to weaken strong nations.

This should be an awakening for our country. For decades there was a high barrier to conducting sensitive research involving biological agents. Those days are long gone, and access to once-publicly inaccessible tools such as gene-editing are readily available. Historically, government institutions like the Defense Advanced Research Production Agency and the National Institute of Health conducted CRISPR gene-editing experiments with the aim of aiding humans. Today, gene-editing can be performed using a $1,000 dollar Do-It-Yourself CRISPR kit to allow glow-in-the-dark dog breeding. Even seemingly innocuous experiments could be causes for concern.

Many other threats are more readily available. For instance, experts fear that a hostile government, terrorist, or amateur biohacker could resurrect smallpox, morph an existing virus into a deadly pathogen, or use seemingly-innocuous research with malicious intent. Not enough attention has been given to these emerging issues in existing global institutions, such as in discussions surrounding the Biological Weapons Convention — the multilateral treaty which bans biological weapons.

Fortunately, the United States has the knowledge and institutions to continue taking a leading role in bio-preparedness. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, we leveraged our existing cooperative threat reduction programs and coordinated with partners around the world to build their capacity for safe and secure facilities that conduct research or store sensitive equipment, and protect against malicious activity like theft. The importance of deepening our cooperation with international partners is underscored by the need to strengthen a global bio-surveillance infrastructure.

I have leveraged my expertise as a physician and a former public health officer to conduct oversight hearings and briefings on biosecurity with experts and administration officials as chair of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation on biosecurity. I also championed funding and legislation to address the future of biosecurity and global health preparedness. But there is more that Congress and U.S. international leadership can do.

I welcome steps already taken by the Biden administration, such as rejoining the World Health Organization, and re-establishing the National Security Council office in charge of biodefense to help the Departments of State and Defense promote cross-bureau coordination, interagency cooperation, and sustained personnel and expertise focused holistically on the wide range of naturally-occurring, accidental, and deliberate biological threats. To continue in the right direction and accomplish these aims, we need to establish stronger international standards for laboratories, attribution, and develop universal guidelines for the responsible and ethical use of emerging bio-technologies such as gene-editing and synthetic biology. This could mean a new global body dedicated to reducing the risk of biotechnology catastrophe. The United States should support the development of the Biological Weapons Convention’s understaffed Implementation Support Unit, potentially by supporting an advisory scientific board.

Americans are resilient, and we will prevail against COVID-19. But we cannot waste this opportunity to prepare for the next worst-case scenario. We must prepare now so that if someone, somewhere starts thinking about combining the contagiousness of COVID-19 with the lethality of Ebola, the United States is ready.

Rep. Ami Bera, M.D. is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation.

Tags Ami Bera Biological Weapons Convention Bioterrorism COVID-19 Ebola World Health Organization
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