By Andrew Weber and Yong-Bee Lim
Operation Warp Speed – the program of major U.S. government investments that drove the rapid development of multiple vaccines for the COVID-19 virus – teaches us a lesson about how to fund the fight against biological threats in the future. That lesson is about establishing a vision of significant, sustained and stable government funding to drive focused and rapid private sector-developed solutions. We propose $10 billion per year for the Department of Defense, and $10 billion per year for Health and Human Services, over 10 years, for biodefense-related programs and initiatives. Or 10 + 10 Over 10.
COVID the Harbinger – The Rising Tide of Biological Threats
As we pass the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, we are approaching 122 million cases and almost 3 million deaths world-wide. These numbers are a grim reminder of the losses we have experienced and a testament to how poorly this pandemic was handled around the globe.
Unfortunately, accelerated global outbreaks are just one type of biological threat that is potentially on the rise. Some experts note that the explosion of work on pathogens with pandemic and weaponization potential has increased the probability of lab accidents and geopolitical miscalculations as more actors engage in activities that teeter at the edge of biodefense and bioweapons. Further, rapid advances in the life sciences capabilities are making them easier to use and capable of doing more, complex things. These factors, along with the convergence of biology with fields like engineering, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and additive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing) are also increasing the capabilities of state and non-state actors. These dynamics are also creating complex, unpredictable outcomes that make predicting technology trajectories exceptionally difficult. The technological state of play thus exacerbates concerns that biological weapons may become cheaper to produce, easier to deploy, and accomplish the desired outcome with greater precision than ever before.
The Ghosts of Biodefense Funding Past – Addressing Funding Stability and Budget Cuts
The Biden Administration has communicated its commitment to addressing and responding to natural, accidental and deliberate biological threats as a top national security priority. In National Security Memorandum 1, the Administration committed to “treat epidemic and pandemic preparedness, health security, and global health as top national security priorities…to create a world that is safe and secure from biological threats.” Executive Order 13994 directed departments and agencies to address COVID-19 and future biothreats by leveraging “the best available science and data, including by building back a better public health infrastructure.” The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance emphasized addressing “pandemics and other biological risks [which]…pose profound and, in some cases, existential dangers.”
To properly resource the Administration’s commitment to prioritizing biological threats, there are two historic funding trends it will need to address. The first is unstable funding to important biodefense programs and initiatives. A National Research Council report found that unstable and unpredictable funding negatively impacted Department of Defense (DoD) programs like the Defense-Wide Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP), which supports the US Armed Forces by researching and developing capabilities to “win decisively in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear environments,” compromising its ability to to achieve its important mission. This phenomenon is not limited to DoD. A Congressional Research Service report noted that the Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response’s (HHS/ASPR) Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) also experienced unstable budgets from start to present.
The second issue is the tendency for biodefense funding to be cut at critical times or to make room for other defense priorities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the deadliest and most significant biological events in modern times, the DoD sought to spend less on chemical and biological defense-related programs. It sought to achieve this through a nearly 15% drop in research and procurement funding for CBDP – the very program that is meant to help maintain force readiness despite adverse chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear combat conditions. This cut was justified by former Defense Secretary Esper to purchase hypersonic missiles and other weapons needed to deter or fight Russia and China. The SNS also experienced such cuts during the Obama Administration, resulting in hard decisions for what to stockpile, what items to reduce, and what items to let expire due to heated battles in Congress concerning the rising federal budget and the debt ceiling.
10B + 10B Over 10 – A Funding Vision for U.S. Biodefense
The convergence of increasing biological risks with the willingness of the U.S. government to meet the difficult challenges of these threats head-on provides us with a unique opportunity – an opportunity to properly and stably fund U.S. biodefense programs and initiatives. Biodefense initiatives and programs exist across many government agencies, including the Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Defense. In a recent piece in Arms Control Today, Andy Weber proposed a funding model that focused on HHS and DoD to provide a vision that takes significant strides for addressing biothreats through the purview of these two government agencies. This model, called “10 + 10 Over 10”, includes:
- $10 billion per year to HHS for biodefense-related programs and initiatives: This level of funding would help support multiple efforts, including but not be limited to: 1) enhancing the ability of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to transition medical countermeasures from research through advanced development; 2) supporting efforts to modernize and enhance HHS/ASPR’s SNS initiative, and; 3) helping build the necessary capacity and expertise to enhance FDA’s capabilities for reviewing and ensuring that medical countermeasures are safe and effective.
- $10 billion per year to DoD for biodefense-related programs and initiatives: This level of funding would also help support multiple efforts, including but not be limited to: 1) providing stable and necessary funding to restore and enhance CBDP’s budget, particularly its medical component, to increase capabilities to research, develop, and leverage emerging and next-gen technologies for early warning systems, rapid characterization of microbes, rapid-response platforms to develop medical countermeasures; 2) supporting and expanding global efforts to strengthen relationships and reduce biological dangers through the Department’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP); 3) enhancing the care and meeting the health and wellness needs of our service-members through the infectious disease components of the Defense Health Program; and 4) encouraging and innovating breakthrough technologies for national security through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
- Maintaining this $10B annual level of funding both for HHS and DoD for 10 years.
Further, this funding approach is also meant to foster a vision of collaboration – one where partnerships between DoD, HHS, and the private sector are the norm. This vision is inspired by the efforts and achievements of Operation Warp Speed (OWS): the moon-shot initiative of public and private stakeholders that took the world from sequence to vaccine in less than a year.
HHS and DoD have complementary capabilities that, together, can make great strides towards the capabilities needed for deterring bio attacks and preventing pandemics. For example, defense programs to counter biological threats house special authorities and skilled acquisition personnel that were leveraged in partnership with HHS to accelerate treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Both departments need to be fully resourced on a strong and consistent basis going forward, in addition to each department’s leaders ensuring that collaboration continues.
Operation Warp Speed showed that when governments offer sufficient funding and expertise, the private sector can swiftly bring incredible advancements in sequencing technologies, synthetic biology, and other innovative technologies to the table, and the U.S. and the globe can overcome even seemingly insurmountable challenges. This is the type of bold funding and collaborative vision necessary to not only overcome the rise of biological threats, but enable all of humanity to thrive in the 21st century.