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Monday, February 6th, 2023

Dept. of Defense aims countermeasures at WMD, synthetic biological threats

The United States must prepare for surprise attacks at home and abroad from traditional weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and from the new, emerging and largely unknown consequences posed by synthetic biological threats, a senior defense official told House congressional members on Thursday.

Traditional WMD include chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, commonly referred to as CBRN. Dr. Arthur T. Hopkins, acting assistant secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), testified that DOD’s continued investments in masks, suits, gloves and other protective gear against traditional threats like mustard and nerve gas “have provided a certain adequate degree of readiness.”

But regarding future threats like “emerging infectious diseases, synthetic biology and engineered diseases — I don’t think we know how good or how bad we are. That’s an area where we are focusing and we have to continue to focus,” he said.

Hopkins testified March 23 before the House Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, which was reviewing DOD’s strategy, policy and programs for countering WMD for fiscal year 2018. The other two witnesses were Peter Verga, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, and Shari Durand, acting director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

“It’s thinking about the biological threat that keeps me awake at night. It’s cheap, available and easy to transmit pathogens,” said U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA).

The congressman bemoaned the prospect of how fast genetic engineering can take place in a bioengineering lab, and then “become a real threat really quickly. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s here,” said Abraham.

“It’s not science fiction,” Hopkins said.

In fact, said Hopkins, DOD has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to lead an interagency study of potential impacts on national security, when possible threats could happen, and what DOD would do about them.

Hopkins said that DOD’s response would fall into three areas: detection, protection and mitigation.

“We want NAS to separate the science from the fiction,” Hopkins said. “We’re working hard on detection technologies to understand when and if we may be subject to those kinds of attacks … but we must ensure that our science can actually develop capabilities to protect the warfighter in the field.”

Durand of DTRA, which is overseen by Hopkins’ office, added that an integrated early warning system and process to find and know what’s out there would be extremely beneficial.

“Advancements in biology and chemistry — for example, synthetic biology — and contributing technologies, such as improvised delivery systems, additive manufacturing, gene editing, and unmanned aerial systems, present potential new threats that the nation must anticipate and be prepared to counter,” Hopkins said.


To counter such current and emerging threats, DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program is developing new strategies to more rapidly respond, especially in the area of medical countermeasures, Hopkins said.

The program is making its partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stronger by developing new incentives for industry engagement in developing medical countermeasures, he added.

For example, medical countermeasures include FDA-approved vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics designed to protect U.S. forces against chemical and biological threats. Hopkins said the FDA approval process is critically important.

“We’ve found it best to engage with them very, very early in the process to speed things up. We are using every means we can to accelerate our work with FDA on safe products,” he said.

Safety is paramount considering the challenge associated with the concern surrounding how the same synthetic biology tools DOD is using to develop countermeasures are likely the same ones that enemies could use against the United States.

So any way to help DOD identify a potential threat is extremely important, the witnesses said.

“The primary thing is early detection of a problem and then getting ahead of the curve on dealing with the problem. Early detection and warning are where [federal budget] investments should be made,” noted Verga.

Countermeasures also include the development of protective equipment and detection systems, as well as coordination with several international partners to leverage their approved medical countermeasures against pharmaceutical-based agents.

Hopkins added that the department also “continues to invest in physical science programs, conduct research and develop technologies for a range of chemical defense capabilities, including detection, medical countermeasures, decontamination and protection.”