The Future of Biodefense: Turning the Curse of Knowing into a Blessing

By Jackson duPont

This summer was my first time diving into the world of biosecurity. As an intern for the Council of Strategic Risks, I expected to learn about new areas of security, and this experience was particularly salient given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In three months, I educated myself on Bacillus anthracis and other pathogens, grew accustomed to a whole new set of federal acronyms, and considered our response to ever-looming threats from naturally-emerging and weaponized disease. 

One thing I had not expected was how those around me would react to my new-found knowledge. When I’ve tried to explain my internship to those outside the space of biosecurity, I encountered comments ranging from “Hmm, that’s interesting, I’ve never known about that work,” or “Oh, that’s some scary stuff!” These exchanges differed considerably from the responses I’d get from my colleagues in this field. As I expressed my dread of the next weaponized pathogen, their responses were usually along the lines of “welcome to my world.”

This one difference reveals the chasm that exists between most of my peers and biosecurity practitioners: those who don’t see the next disaster and those burdened with maledictus sciere — the curse of knowing that future disasters are a very real possibility. 

This divide not only disconnects those who know and those who don’t, but distances the solutions from the issue since efforts to mitigate bioweapons are often out of sight and disaggregated across different sectors. This post explores the “unseen” and often underappreciated qualities of the biodefense field, the implications of these qualities, and the new types of narratives that may help bridge the gap to guide us towards effective solutions.

Photo provided by Jackson du Pont

Unseen Threats

As I began researching biological threats, I realized that, unlike other issues, there are inherent qualities that obscure the threat. First, biothreats are difficult to visualize. Second, actual bioweapon programs are extremely challenging to discover and verify. Finally, for many the risks are too abstract to visualize. Recognizing these qualities inherent to the biosecurity space is the first step towards building effective solutions.

The Character of Bioweapons — Dr. W. Seth Carus defines biological weapons as pathogens capable of “causing disease in humans, animals, or plants.” Additionally, a “biological agent also could be a microorganism capable of degrading material, such as bacteria that might attack the silicon on computer chips or tire rubber.” They often cannot be seen with the naked eye, and identification of a biological attack is challenging given long incubation periods or lapses in public health. In fact, the largest biological attack in U.S. history, in which the Rajaneshee cult used salmonella to poison local salad bars, went unattributed for over a year — further highlighting the obfuscating characteristics of these weapons. Worryingly, some speculate that bioweapons could even be developed to go undetected in the general population, or even target specific individuals. 

They Are Hard to Find and Determine Intent — Bioweapon prevention and mitigation efforts also struggle with the “invisible” characteristics of bioweapons. Whereas it would be difficult to construct a nuclear weapons program without the detection of exported materials or satellite surveillance, a state could hide its bioweapon program in its civilian science sector or deep underground. Dual-use issues and determining intent compound this challenge of verifying the existence of a bioweapon program. Without ascertaining intent, a state’s biodefense program may look indistinguishable from an offensive program to an outside observer. 

History demonstrates the difficulty of determining whether individuals, groups, or states have a bioweapons program. Following the signing of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972, the Soviet Union expanded their bioweapons program — the largest bioweapons program in history. While there were suspicions following a number of accidents, it was only confirmed following Yeltsin’s announcement in 1992 that his country violated the BWC. Additionally, Japan learned of Aum Shinrikyo’s efforts to develop numerous bioweapons only after their 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo.

Defending Against the Hypothetical— For an issue like bioweapons, decision makers and advocates have to rely on the counterfactual to drive policy decisions. The hypothetical threat of a biological attack needs to be compelling enough to enact change and deliver resources for solutions. Maledictus sciere is not only the curse of knowing of these possible threats, but the curse of having to convince others of its eventual possibility. Put simply, biosecurity advocates have to compel others to defend against theoretical threats to prevent the possibility of catastrophe. 

Biodefense, like other sectors which contend with risk, relies on insurance metaphors—that prevention of a biological attack or disaster is far cheaper and lifesaving—than emergency response. This messaging is salient because, as individuals, we encounter insurance messaging all the time. Whether health, life, or auto, it is ingrained in modern society that insurance is wise prior to disaster and lifesaving in its eventuality. While this is true, policymakers and society tend to lean towards response strategies after an emergency emerges. Societally, without ongoing catastrophes, it becomes difficult to prioritize resources and attention for catastrophe avoidance and the calls by experts are likely to go unheard. 

Finally, it is challenging to quantify the effect that existing frameworks have in mitigating threats. The absence of catastrophe diminishes the prescience for ongoing efforts to deter against risk—increasing the likelihood that preventative measures are not sufficiently sustained by policymakers. In September 2019, the Trump administration ended USAID’s pandemic foresight program, yet COVID-19 so blatantly pointed out the necessity of that initiative. Policymakers must understand that efforts to address these threats cannot end in the absence of their arrival. 

The chasm created by the unseen and obfuscating qualities of biological threats and their solutions widen the gap between efforts to address the issue and finding effective response. Critically, this gap reduces issue accessibility and frustrates the ability for practitioners to engage relevant stakeholders and decision makers to increase issue awareness.

Bridging the Chasm

Diffused Responses —  A word that I heard many times this summer was “stakeholders.” In the biodefense space, the issue is divided and spread out across different sectors from public health, law enforcement, policy makers, intelligence, and diplomacy. Recognizing the multitude of actors, the question then becomes how to properly engage them. Biodefense efforts should come from a myriad of sectors, but diversity of responsibility and governance has become the sector’s weakness—not strength. While there is a National Biodefense Strategy to unite the interagency effort, the lack of issue ownership to conduct biodefense prevents meaningful cooperation.

Diffused stakeholders approach the biological threat chasm (chart created for this article by Jackson du Pont)

Deterring against the threat of bioweapons does not take the same shape as other defense spaces. The kinetic threat space is built on highly visible apparati, such as aircraft carriers or overseas military bases, for defensive capabilities. The threats and solutions in the biodefense space, given their invisible and diffuse natures, tend towards natural issue disaggregation. As a concentrated effort, biothreat prevention is a non-priority issue across most of the United States government. While many departments and agencies are tasked with addressing these threats, biosecurity tends to be overshadowed by other issues.

Without consistent messaging and a coherent narrative among interagency partners, calls to strengthen biodefense may not be met as biological threats are seen as minor sub-sector issues. Additionally, solutions created within sectors may be too siloed to address cross-sector risks. Here is the crux: if biological defense policy is understood and governed only among its separate components, decision makers will continue to struggle with this issue.

Coalesced Response — Stakeholders should develop methods for issue coalescence given how the diluted and stratified efforts across the biosecurity space are not strong enough to cross the chasm and drive solutions. While the responsibility to deal with biological issues will continue to be divided amongst different components, individual efforts should work in concert towards a common goal: making our nation and the global community safer and more secure from all manners of biological threats. A unified narrative could help mobilize the type of collective action necessary for collaboration and cross-cutting action.

The National Biodefense Strategy and its coordination of interagency response is a prime example of issue coalescence. However, efforts to increase interoperability and shared networks must not stop there. Biodefense experts and policymakers should reach out across industries and disciplines to strengthen shared capacity and drive progress. Crucially, however, once established these new networks may benefit from a restructured approach to how they address non-expert policymakers. 

The current model of asking lawmakers for insurance against future biological threats is necessary, yes, but its effectiveness is questionable. Instead of relying on narratives of preventing counterfactual events, biodefense should communicate how their efforts can build new capacities and map new pathways designed to create opportunities for innovation at the nexus of science, technology, and health. Whether it is a new strategy to increase issue prioritization as part of a top-down, interagency process overhaul or the empowering of stakeholders to increase connection and partnerships from the bottom, there are many paths forward.

Connected and unified stakeholders focus efforts to address biological threats (chart created for this article by Jackson du Pont)

While biodefense should not be a for-profit enterprise, augmenting existing approaches into a business framework could be helpful. Aiming to deliver tangible benefits for stakeholders (society), while remaining firmly committed to the mission of biosecurity may increase capacity for action. For example, while it may be difficult to convince policymakers of the need for increased biosurveillance to deter against biological weapon usage, the dividends given for global public health are immense. This narrative could help bridge the gap separating the issue from the solutions and allow policymakers to clearly point to what they are fighting for – whether it be increased capacity for public health, increased biomedical innovation, or the ability for law enforcement to counter grave threats.

One example of how inter-stakeholder facilitation can concentrate efforts and reveal solutions is the unique relationship between the FBI and DIYbio. In the late 2000s, agents from the FBI started fostering relationships with members of the DIYbio community to establish a rapport for mutual understanding. Seeking to learn the capabilities of this nascent and, at times, hidden biotech space, the FBI created communication pathways with members of the DIYbio community, shared classes on biosafety and biosecurity, and established local points of contact that members of the DIYbio space could rely on in case of emergencies or to report suspicious activities. This approach, spearheaded by Agent Edward You, represented a new strategy of community engagement which leveraged the disaggregated qualities of the DIYbio space to both help regulate themselves. Instead of relying on the conventional suspect/threat model, Agent You and his team created an ecosystem of experts and partners that were willing to collaborate with the FBI. 

The success of this strategy illustrates the power of building networks to connect disparate stakeholders. These types of frameworks, which emphasize the capital of relationships, should not go unnoticed and other actors can learn from the example of You’s leadership to add value to biosecurity.

While the FBI undertook capacity building as a measure to increase security and surveillance, there were real benefits for both groups. With their relationship, DIYbio gained legitimacy, education, and reassurances from law enforcement, while the FBI gained deep insights into the capabilities, networks, and culture of the DIY community. These benefits are the positive externalities of security work, but they can also be the incentives. Practitioners should frame biosecurity through the lens of positive externalities like these to deliver the policy changes which aim to deliver threat reduction measures. While proving the counterfactual can be impossible, positive effects which stem from increased collaboration, partnership, and capacity building are not only quantifiable, but should be the main characters in the new narratives to incentivize issue prioritization.

Embracing Complexity — Recently, I asked someone who has dedicated his career to countering bioweapons in the intelligence community what his elevator pitch for a newly elected member of Congress would be. How would he go about persuading them to be the next champion of biosecurity? He responded: “There is no one size fits all approach.” He explained that for each member of Congress he would have to know their background and familiarize himself with their constituents to deliver a convincing pitch.

Finding a reason to convince each member of Congress of the importance of prevention is daunting. However, from the build framework this piece advocates, it is also empowering, whether you are a Senator from Iowa concerned about protecting the yields of your constuient’s corn harvest or a representative from New York City committed to ensuring public health among urban residents. This anecdote is a reminder that everyone is a stakeholder in the shared goal of biological security. There is no single reason to build capacity and carve out a new approach for the future of biosecurity — there are hundreds.

Benedictus Sciere — Blessed to Know

If practitioners could benefit from restructured narratives of biosecurity, the rest of us need to reimagine how we listen to them. Understanding that biodefense is challenging, unseen, and often complex is the first step to bridging the chasm between the issue and its solutions. Secondly, efforts to mitigate biological threats are effective only when stakeholders can coalesce their responsibility and responses. Third, and most importantly, the biosecurity messaging must move away from preventing the hypothetical and towards building capacity to deliver wide benefits for society.

As the perceived risk of biological threats eventually fades, along with the prescience of the pandemic, let us find a path for a new set of metaphors for biodefense. It is time to live in a world where we recognize the counterfactual and build towards its absence. Every day practitioners in this field wake up and choose this work so that the rest of us don’t have to. Maybe tomorrow we can turn their curse of foresight into our blessing.

Thanks to Yong-Bee Lim for his valuable contributions to this article.

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