Stepping into the biopolicy breach

Last week, at the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Meeting in Geneva, Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher announced President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden on Bob Dole: 'among the greatest of the Greatest Generation' Moving beyond the era of American exceptionalism The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE’s strategy for countering biothreats. By announcing at this forum, the administration highlights the imperative of global cooperation to address biothreats and signals an implicit commitment to the centrality of the BWC in this domain.

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Biological weapons can be made anywhere, moved everywhere, and a contagious agent would spread to the United States from wherever it’s released. According to the strategy, “a biological incident that results in mass casualties anywhere in the world increases the risk to all nations from biological threats.”

In the administration’s seven-element strategy, four themes deserve commendation. First is the imperative of strengthening global public health. Expanding disease surveillance and detection capabilities and improving medical capacities against disease can mitigate damages of bio-attacks.

Moreover, terrorists will be less apt to commit a bio-attack against resistant and resilient targets. The U.S. will work with partner countries to develop and procure medical countermeasures against infectious diseases.

There is a robust diplomatic advantage here as well: By emphasizing global health security for countering biothreats, the administration can engage many developing nations who are fervently receptive to collaborative initiatives for combating disease. Impelling these nations to take strides toward biopreparedness is significant, regardless of whether their primary motivation focuses on manmade or natural disease reduction.

Second is heightening attention to potential dangers emerging from advancing bioscience and promoting a culture of responsibility. The strategy pledges to work with life sciences associations to develop codes of conduct and educational materials to ensure appreciation of how life science could be misused. While the strategy proposes no regulation or overt supervision of bioscience, the U.S. will provide “detailed guidelines” for pathogen security and for reducing misuse of dual-use information. 

Moreover, officials will pay close heed to bioscience’s advance and will seek to improve whistleblower and reporting mechanisms for bioscientists to inform law enforcers about security breaches involving high-risk pathogens. The strategy supports implementation of “legislation criminalizing the development and/or use of biological weapons and/or acts of bioterrorism.”

Third is the imperative of preventing and attributing bioterrorism and apprehending perpetrators through improving intelligence and facilitating data-sharing — tasks that explicitly engage law enforcement. Biothreats are unique because a perpetrator who is capable and sufficiently motivated to commit a bio-attack can repeat that attack unendingly. Apprehending the perpetrator is critical to reducing the risk of follow-on attacks.

In order to improve responses to and investigations of biological incidents, law enforcement and security communities must be optimally equipped to receive tips, handle contaminated material, and conduct investigations and prosecutions. The strategy will also promote collaboration with partner nations to develop effective interdiction capabilities through “communication, coordination, cooperation, and capacity building.”

Fourth is the commitment to transform the international dialogue on biological threats. Because the BWC is the premier forum for addressing all intentional biothreats, the U.S. will advance a substantive agenda “to enhance global risk management.” This objective includes promoting confidence-building and transparency measures, universal membership, and coalitions of “like-minded” states.

Also commendable is what is not in the strategy. There are no comparisons to strategies for reducing nuclear, chemical or any other threats — an implicit grasp that such linkages have ill-served progress in this domain.  Moreover, the potential for misuse of bioscience is not characterized as a subset of disease dangers generally. Here is a security challenge that has human malevolence at its core.

Altogether, the new strategy focuses primary attention on the risks of bio-attacks committed by non-state actors. The administration is resolutely leaving behind the stalemated squabbles that have long infected BWC deliberations. Simply stated, the strategy makes sense.

Looking forward, the ability to develop and use biological weapons is a specter haunting our descendants’ security. Policies to confront these threats, therefore, must comparably embody eternal commitments. At the same time, policies to confront these threats must integrate compromises and advocate collaboration among many stakeholders including science, health, law enforcement, and intelligence. Biothreats signify, in these respects, the changing future of security challenges.

By articulating a nuanced international security strategy to confront emerging challenges having potentially tremendous ramifications, the administration has emphatically propelled U.S. anti-biothreats strategy as a vital component of our foreign policy. For eight years, the U.S. has been deemed, rightfully or not, the culprit for stifled policy. But there’s a new sheriff in town with a new agenda, and the communities that have clamored for positive action should appreciate opportunities for progress.


Kellman is president of the International Security and Biopolicy Institute and author of Bioviolence – Preventing Biological Terror and Crime.