White House Preparing Bio-Defense Strategy As Germ Warfare Fears Rise
The National Security Strategy released by the Trump Administration in December makes deterring and/or defeating “weapons of mass destruction” a top priority for U.S. policymakers. In the past, that phrase has almost always been used as a euphemism for nuclear weapons. But in a break with tradition, the administration is putting increased emphasis on combating bio-threats and pandemics. In fact, the National Security Council staff is preparing a dedicated bio-defense strategy.
Bio-threats originate in microscopic organisms — bacteria, viruses, fungi — that cause diseases such as influenza, smallpox and anthrax. Highly transmissible, often lethal pathogens have ravaged humanity since homo sapiens first emerged in Africa. Smallpox alone killed more people than all the wars of the 20th Century combined. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 infected a quarter of the world’s population, killed 50-100 million, and depressed life expectancy in the U.S. by a dozen years.
Until recently, all of these outbreaks occurred spontaneously in nature as what were once called “germs” evolved to exhibit novel features — features against which most people had little or no resistance. But now a new danger is looming, as breakthroughs in the life sciences enable scientists to engineer lethal pathogens in their laboratories. One group of Canadian researchers figured out how to synthesize a virus similar to smallpox — and then published an article explaining how they did it.
The Trump Administration apparently has concluded this is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Virulent pathogens might escape labs to spread globally, killing millions. Worse, they might be exploited by nihilistic extremists to undermine the international order. Various terrorist groups are thought to have sought out scientists who could help them implement such a strategy. The technology and skills needed to synthesize novel pathogens are increasingly available in global commerce, and largely unregulated.
There is no point in trying to stuff this genie back into its bottle. Too many people around the world now know how to manipulate genetic material with great precision. And even if they didn’t, there is a very high likelihood that naturally occurring scourges such as the Spanish Flu will appear again. One scientist at a highly respected research institution told me that humanity is two mutations of the influenza virus away from species extinction. So the Trump Administration has decided it needs to be prepared.
This could be the single most important policy initiative President Trump undertakes, given the potential consequences of a devastating pandemic. It does not require a great deal of additional federal funding, but it does need some sort of mechanism to coordinate all the federal players. The most important player at present is the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness & Response, who works with the Centers for Disease Control and others to maintain adequate stockpiles of medical countermeasures.
But a comprehensive bio-defense strategy would require participation by many other players, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the National Guard. It also requires somebody with presidential authority to set priorities. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security last year proposed defunding the government’s only bio-defense analysis and countermeasures lab — a very untimely move. Someone in the White House needs to be enforcing preparedness priorities.
Beyond that, biological threats need to be removed from the catchall category of “weapons of mass destruction,” and addressed according to their unique characteristics. As long as the same officials who are responsible for dealing with chemical or radiological threats also oversee bio-war preparedness, the danger is likely to be neglected. Bio-threats aren’t like nerve gas or radiation — they are living organisms that evolve and may grow worse over time rather than dissipating after their initial impact.
Although the prospect of lethal pandemics in the near future is profoundly unsettling, it is good news that the Trump Administration has recognized the threat and is drafting a response strategy. A bipartisan commission on bio-threats complained that the Obama Administration was not doing enough to prepare for the arrival of new pathogens, whether they originated naturally or were contrived by scientists. Perhaps the Trump Administration can fix this defect in our nation’s security posture.