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Monday, February 6th, 2023

DePaul University law professor concerned about U.S. biothreat response capabilities

Barry Kellman

North Korea denies claims made in the Trump administration’s recently released National Security Strategy that it “has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons” nor that it has researched “chemical and biological weapons which could be delivered by missile.”

And as a state party to the United Nation’s Biological Weapons Convention, the country “maintains its consistent stand to oppose development, manufacture, stockpiling and possession of biological weapons,” North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in two separate statements last month.

Nevertheless, decades of open source information prove otherwise, according to an October 2017 report by Harvard Kennedy School researchers at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“Although the lack of recent and reliable public information prevents a comprehensive assessment of its current capability, threats posed by North Korea’s biological weapons program must be considered a realistic proposition and addressed by the international community,” according to the Harvard report, The Known and Unknown: North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program.

And for renowned DePaul University College of Law Professor Barry Kellman — who has spent 25 years focusing on how to control and eradicate chemical, biological, nuclear and conventional weapons — biothreats against the United States are real.

“The primary concern regarding biodefense is whether the Administration’s assaults on public health funding and on scientific research are undermining the U.S. medical response to something breaking out on a large scale, be it natural like another type of SARS or an intentional bio-attack,” Kellman told Homeland Preparedness News in an interview this week.

“We have built a system of public health to respond to unforeseen situations and now we are tearing it down, or at the very least weakening the structure,” said Kellman. “This causes me a great deal of concern.”

Kellman is among the world’s foremost legal authorities on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an arms control treaty that targets the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He served as chairman of the CWC committee of legal experts established by the Organization for the Prohibition Chemical of Weapons. Kellman also was the lead author of the “Manual for National Implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” and has testified before the U.S. Senate in support of U.S. ratification and implementation of the CWC.

Kellman also was an original co-director of the DePaul University College of Law’s International Criminal Justice and Weapons Control Center, which was established in 1998 to address global criminal justice issues and to research the legal aspects of controlling WMD. Center staff work closely with the American and foreign governments, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and scholars.

In 2008, Kellman wrote a report on biological terrorism for the nonprofit Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan commission of former U.S. government officials who rated the federal government’s progress toward preventing terrorist attacks with WMD. At that time, the panel graded the nation a C- in reducing bioterrorism threats and an overall C for efforts to reduce terrorism threats following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Since then, there have been some improvements, said Kellman, who previously served as senior advisor to the Interpol Program on Prevention of Bioterrorism from 2004 to 2009, and as legal advisor to the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Standards and Practices to Prevent Destructive Application of Advanced Biotechnology in 2003-2004, among other notable positions.

For instance, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Kellman said the threats of intentionally inflicted diseases have been stabilized.

“We have tightened up dangerous pathogens domestically and internationally,” he said. “There were substantial improvements made under the Bush and Obama administrations regarding public health response capabilities and the public health community is now better able to respond should there be some sort of attack.”

However, what has weakened in the last year, according to Kellman, is the ability of the U.S. to work with both its allies and international organizations to detect people having biological weapons, which was active under those previous administrations.

“It seems to be less a priority under the Trump administration,” he said.

At the same time, there hasn’t been a major or global pandemic in a very long time, Kellman added, which tends to cause casualness about biodefense “because we’re not facing a significant outbreak.”

“The difficulty is you can’t build an infrastructure for responding to a pandemic when there’s an outbreak happening; it’s too late. You have to be prepared. That’s the best way to prevent or respond should they occur,” he said.

Kellman noted that certain aspects of the health care system are fantastic, including scientific research and capabilities for containing outbreaks.

“The problem is if somebody really wants to hurt us, could they? And the answer is yes, and they could hurt us through agriculture, pathogens … I won’t go into details. But we’re vulnerable,” he said. “We are more vulnerable than we should be.”

Indeed, the U.S. faces “an extraordinarily dangerous world,” President Donald Trump said during a 20-minute speech Dec. 18 announcing the release of his administration’s 68-page National Security Strategy.

The congressionally mandated document is based on four pillars, the first one being to Protect the American People, the Homeland and the American Way of Life, which includes actions such as securing U.S. borders and territories by defending against WMD and combating biothreats and pandemics.

The strategy states that the U.S. “must prevent nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological attacks” and “must build a culture of preparedness and resilience across our governmental functions, critical infrastructure, and economic and political systems.”

To accomplish these feats, priority actions listed in the administration’s strategy include:

  • The detection and disruption of WMD via bolstered efforts to detect nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological agents. Such efforts would include better integrated intelligence; law enforcement and emergency management operations to improve the response of frontline defenders; enhanced counterproliferation measures that secure, eliminate and prevent the spread of WMD; and direct counter-terrorism operations that target terrorist WMD specialists, financiers, administrators and facilitators.
  • Combating biothreats and pandemics — resulting from intentional attack, an accident or a natural outbreak — will include improved detection and containment operations undertaken in conjunction with other countries to mitigate outbreaks early and prevent the spread of a disease; strengthening global health security across human and animal health to prevent infectious disease outbreaks; supporting biomedical innovation; and improving emergency response.

Kellman thinks such coordinated political efforts could help, but more should be done. Specifically, the United States needs to have someone in charge of making sure that such strategies are working on a day-by-day basis, he said.

“The most important thing at this time is that there is no central authority for dealing with pandemic diseases, whether naturally or intentionally inflicted,” Kellman said. “There are plans and responsibilities for all sorts of agencies … but there is no person or office centrally responsible for preventing, detecting, or responding to some sort of outbreak.”

Kellman said he would recommend that Congress create a commission in the White House that would be the main authority for pandemic diseases and coordinate the related work of federal departments including Health and Human Services (HHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Agriculture and the Department of Defense (DOD).

“There needs to be somebody in charge with the power to tell people what to do,” he said. “Right now, we have a situation … in which Ag monitors pandemics for animals; DOD monitors it for protecting soldiers; EPA does environmental monitoring; HHS handles public health and response — where in the structure does this very important piece of authority bring it all together?

“That’s my concern. And what’s obvious, if there’s an outbreak, it’ll be too late to figure it out,” Kellman said.