From nature to Putin to rogue biologists, the US is not prepared

From nature to Putin to rogue biologists, the US is not prepared
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When, against all odds, Alexei Navalny recovered from being attacked with a Cold War chemical weapon called Novichok, he boarded a plane back to Russia despite understanding the threat he faced. The Russian government diverted that plane away from Vnukovo airport — where thousands of Navalny’s supporters had gathered — to Sheremetyevo airport where Navalny was arrested at passport control. He issued a statement saying the day’s events were “just one more indication of what is going on in Russia … but it shows how we need to fight here.” 

And fight they have. On recent weekends, protesters have flooded streets across the country. They have been met with the harshest crackdown in years from Russian authorities.

The Navalny case shows that Russian activists have a steep road, but it also demonstrates, along with COVID-19, just how unprepared the United States is to respond to biological threats whether they are naturally-occurring or concocted in a lab. 


To understand the true gravity of the threat, recall lone wolf Army biological researcher Bruce Ivins was indicted for sending anthrax-filled letters to Capitol Hill in September 2001, killing five Americans. Just think: A single rogue biologist was as lethal as the armed mob bent on insurrection that also took five American lives this past Jan. 6.   

Couple the exponential killing power of chemical and biological weapons with Navalny’s poisoning and previous evidence of Russian violations of the internationally-agreed Biological Weapons Convention, and you have a major threat the Biden administration must address. 

Beyond man-made biological agents, COVID-19 has shown that, despite SARS, MERS, Ebola, swine flu and other recent disease outbreaks, the U.S. is still unprepared for diseases that jump from animals to humans even though the mutations that enable this zoonotic transmission will never stop

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, I co-chaired a committee for the National Academy of Science that looked at issues around asymmetrical warfare. Later I was a member of a committee on U.S. military force protection for the Navy and Marines from chemical and biological attack. I studied the underlying issues of concern centered around the lack of preparedness.

In the aftermath of a biological terror attack, you worry about mass confusion, a lack of clear guidance from authorities, inadequate support and supplies from the government to meet the moment, and a lack of coherent planning — in short, some of the exact problems we faced as COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire. 


No matter who is in charge, the responsibilities remain the same. Guidance to and support for state and local governments has been, and continues to be, too little, way too late. Even as the vaccine rolls out, we see confusion wrought by a vacuum of federal planning.

President BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE has his work cut out for him. He needs to restore the White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and step into the planning vacuum. 

He also needs to force federal regulatory agencies to provide more clarity in their guidance to states. When you issue stay-at-home orders and shut businesses you must provide adequate information to justify those actions so people understand them and comply. Currently, state and local governments are left with bits of partial and inconstant information, with which they make major decisions regarding public health and economic impact.

When I served as the deputy chief of Cal/OSHA, leading California’s standards and enforcement work, I learned that you need clear, compelling arguments to justify closing businesses. Having a void of top-down credible information, conflicting facts and popular fear has led to a mixture of inconstant policies with considerable economic impacts. State and local governments do not have the resources to conduct original research, or the resources to enforce such large-scale and consequential actions. If science shows that outdoor dining is much safer than indoor dining, but the state or county, in order to achieve an abundance of caution, bans both, you see adherence drop across the board.

Moreover, whether it is a pandemic or a biological attack, states lack the requisite money, human resources and infrastructure to lead the response. COVID-19 has shown that we need the federal government to provide the groundwork for vaccine development and deployment, and to provide logistics and resources to state health departments that are not set up to act like hospitals. 

And crucially, across the board we need increased focus on biosafety.

The Navalny poisoning shows that President Biden will have to deal with rogue states that still produce and traffic in deadly biological weapons. Advances in technology will only make these easier to acquire for adversarial governments or non-state terrorists.    

To address COVID-19 today and the biological threats of tomorrow, President Biden needs to activate the full muscle of the private sector behind increasing our preparedness. He can take certain action without Congress through executive orders and with tools such as the Defense Production Act, which isn’t just about vaccines or syringes. To administer 600 million vaccine doses, you also need 600 million gauze pads. Where do those come from? We need American industry in a war-time innovation and production posture. 

Across industry, we need our best minds in technology and health care to help society develop new ways to fight off pathogens, whether they come from animals, governments or rogue actors.

I hope that President Biden leverages the full tools of the federal government and calls upon the private sector to step up and offer the best of American innovation. We require a whole-of-society response to the biological threats we face at home and abroad. They will only grow as nature continues to invent diseases and humans become more able to weaponize biology.

Dr. Richard L. Wade is the chief scientist at R Zero and formerly was the deputy chief of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). He advised the Department of Defense during the Ebola outbreak and has worked on numerous pandemics. He also has worked with cruise lines and city and state governments on microbiological contamination, toxicology and risk management.

Editor's Note: This article was edited after publication.