The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged individual and cooperative efforts by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. State Department to counter biological threats around the world, prompting lawmakers to reevaluate the dangers that infectious disease outbreaks pose to U.S. national security.
Members of both the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation and the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities delved into such issues during a joint Oct. 2 hearing in which federal agency leaders from DOD and State testified about the impact of the coronavirus and what they think is needed to strengthen U.S. biosecurity.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has further altered the threat landscape,” testified David Lasseter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction at DOD. “This pandemic has demonstrated the wide-reaching and destabilizing impact that infectious disease outbreaks can have on the world, and may result in greater interest by non-state actors and terrorist organizations in developing biological weapons.”
For instance, infectious disease outbreaks may undermine DOD’s operational readiness and ability to provide combat-credible military forces needed to deter conflict and to protect the security of the nation, said Lasseter, while such outbreaks in partner nations can impair national security partnerships and lead to long-term economic, political and security destabilization.
“This weakens America’s network of allies and partners and their ability to confront common threats jointly, which in turn places a greater financial and operational burden on DOD to protect vital U.S. security interests abroad,” Lasseter said.
The biological threat landscape is always changing, witnesses said, including for naturally occurring infectious disease outbreaks and accidental or deliberate release of biological threat agents. Equally problematic are threats posed by state and non-state actors; international and domestic outbreaks; and potential threats posed by existing and emerging dual-use technologies, “which hold both promise and peril in their applications,” said Lasseter.
Phillip Dolliff, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation Programs at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN), agreed. “As demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergence of new biological threats – especially emerging infectious disease outbreaks – have the potential to make a significant impact on national security and biological nonproliferation,” he testified.
And that’s exactly the situation currently playing out with the COVID-19 pandemic, said witnesses, noting that widespread disease outbreaks also can divert the attention, resources and capabilities of federal departments and agencies from their long-term strategic defense objectives as they try instead to meet the immediate needs of the current crisis.
Dolliff called biological threats, including emerging infectious disease threats, among the most serious threats facing the United States and the international community.
“Countering such threats is an imperative element of the State Department’s national security mission as biological threats can originate in one country and spread to others with potentially far-reaching international consequences,” Dolliff told lawmakers. “The COVID-19 pandemic is an undeniable tragedy and has brought to stark light just how much damage a single pathogen can cause, not just to the lives of people here at home and around the world, but also to the international security environment and the global economy.”
Currently, part of the nation’s countering weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) policy consists of actively monitoring emerging technologies, including biotechnologies, to assess how they might impact the broader threat reduction efforts.
The witnesses said they recognize that emerging biotechnologies, including gene editing and synthetic biology, may reduce the barrier to biological weapon development as they become more readily accessible by the general public.
U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation Chairman Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) expressed similar concerns.
“If I put my doctor and scientist hat on, the availability of technology to alter viruses and do gene editing, the know-how and the capabilities are rapidly increasing and that is something that keeps me awake at night,” said Bera, who is a physician. “We know there are bad apples out there.”
Bera said that Congress must work with the administration to determine what it is that needs to be done to move ahead, especially as lawmakers dedicate billions of dollars to set up the infrastructure to defeat COVID-19. “Congress and the administration should be thinking about how to use those resources to also prepare for biosurveillance of either a naturally occurring virus or other biothreat, and for man-made threats,” he said.
Other emerging technologies also could pose additional biological threat reduction challenges. For example, 3D-printing may help facilitate the production of complex and previously costly and difficult-to-procure equipment that is necessary for producing such agents, said Lasseter, who pointed out that advances in drone technology also could aid in targeted dissemination of biological threat agents.
CWMD policy is incorporating the threats posed by these emerging technologies into national strategic guidance and assessments, according to witnesses.
Vayl Oxford, director of the DOD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), testified that increasing U.S. influence in partner nations strategically degrades the networks and influence of U.S. competitors, and suggested that “one of the most effective ways to increase the depth and breadth of our friendly networks is by increasing our partners’ abilities and strengthening the bonds with our partners through the nation’s suite of BPC [Building Partner Capacity], security cooperation, and threat reduction programs.”
Along those same lines, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, added that the United States needs to assess the shortcomings of its multilateral agreements and decide where adjustments need to be made.
Rep. James Langevin (D-RI), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, who attended the joint hearing virtually, said biological threats are easier to create than other weapons of mass destruction and that when used in concert, cyber weapons and biological weapons could create “major damage.”
“For instance, we know that Russian hackers have targeted organizations involved in COVID-19 research and vaccine development, including those in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada,” Langevin said. “We must ensure the interagency work being done is working to address the current pandemic and strengthen biological security.”
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, said biological threats are a “critically important mission” of the nation’s CWMD policy.
“We must continue to adapt our approach and iterate our response,” Stefanik said, adding that the federal government must be more proactive to effectively detect and respond to the next biological event. “This surely will not be the last biological crisis the nation or world confronts,” the congresswoman said.
Stefanik also suggested considerations around how the government might use new data sets and AI to modernize biosurveillance efforts. Biothreats require a whole-of-government approach, not just DOD and State, said Stefanik, and should include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as state and local officials, among others.
“Looking forward,” said DOD’s Lasseter, “the collective capabilities and expertise of biological threat reduction-related stakeholders across DOD will enable us to address the existing and emerging biological threats of 2020 and beyond.”
He said DOD will continue working to mitigate the likelihood of and impacts from outbreaks of especially dangerous pathogens worldwide, while at the same time positioning the department to utilize emerging technologies and to counter the threats posed by them.
“Prioritization efforts led by DOD’s policy experts will further ensure that programs overseen by CWMD policy are focused on areas where the department has a core role, where the highest threat reduction value lies, and that align with our strategic political-military objectives,” Lasseter said. “We will continue working closely with U.S. interagency and international partners to help reach peak return on our investments.”
Dolliff of the State Department said that his bureau is leading diplomatic efforts to urge renewed attention to combating biological threats via specific capacity-building work provided through foreign assistance programs, while also cooperating with U.S. interagency partners to achieve shared biological threat reduction goals.
In looking toward the future of the biological threat landscape, he said the State Department is also working to keep pace with the rapidly evolving biological threat landscape, while the full range of U.S. national security departments and agencies are carefully assessing and addressing these issues, although he said he could not provide details publicly.
“As demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergence of new biological threats – especially emerging infectious disease outbreaks – have the potential to make a significant impact on national security and biological nonproliferation,” Dolliff said. “We strongly believe that biological weapons nonproliferation and biosecurity are critical components of national security and the work of the State Department, but we also recognize that our work is far from over.”