Pandemics and Bioweapons: A Path for the Biden Administration

Parthemore and Weber, LA Times, Nov 12, 2020

By Christine Parthemore and Andy Weber

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to prove that infectious diseases can devastate the United States and the world—killing and sickening millions, disrupting lives, crippling economies, and significantly affecting dynamics among nations. The pandemic also foreshadows the potentially destructive power of biological weapons. Indeed, there is growing concern that the horrific effects of COVID-19 on great powers like the United States could make biological weapons seem ideal to nations seeking to reap the strategic benefits of weapons of mass destruction. 

Last week, we published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on this threat. Perhaps most importantly, we suggested what the Biden administration can do to hedge against it, noting the strong overlaps between actions taken to prevent future pandemics, and to render biological weapons both unattractive and ineffective at causing mass devastation.

Specific actions must drive toward a comprehensive and coherent vision to make biological weapons obsolete, including: the implementation of a system of strong national preparedness, real-time early warning when infectious diseases emerge, and rapid response capabilities that embed in the national economy and surge to quickly halt new outbreaks. As we wrote:

Such a system is technologically feasible. It also could drive significant economic growth if the U.S. devises a strong disease-defense system before other countries do.

Some of the necessary elements are already in place in response to COVID-19. After China posted the coronavirus’ genetic sequence in January, it took only days for companies to use it to build prototype diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. The United States has started expanding technologies that allow quick design and manufacture of therapeutics and vaccines when novel viruses emerge, regardless of the specific pathogen…

Wherever possible, the billions of dollars the country invests in COVID-19 responses should be designed to become part of this preparedness and rapid-response ecosystem. For example, it appears that some of the new government-funded vaccine development and manufacturing methods will succeed; the U.S. must maintain and expand these capabilities. This will be critical to persuading those tempted to use biological weapons not to go down that path.

Moreover, the Pentagon has to take a starring role. Its already-strong contributions to this vision through its countering-bioweapons investments show the potential benefits of leveraging the defense community’s scientific and medical communities, and acquisition pull. In just one example, DARPA’s investments in the vaccine development capabilities of Moderna helped lead to one of the most promising COVID-19 vaccines in progress today. The Department of Defense showing active leadership against biological threats can also help deter actors who may be motivated to consider using bioweapons, due to events such as COVID-19 quickly taking out an aircraft carrier and putting most of the Joint Chiefs in quarantine.

There is much we can do, but we can’t let short-term action substitute for a long-term plan. Strong leadership by the Biden administration must extend past addressing the current pandemic to creating the preparedness, early warning, and rapid response system needed to halt all infectious diseases as they emerge in the future. 
Read our full LA Times op-ed here, and follow CSR’s forthcoming work on this subject here.

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