New Report: Understanding the Threat of Biological Weapons in a World with COVID-19 

By Andrea Rezzonico 

The Council on Strategic Risks is today releasing Understanding the Threat of Biological Weapons in a World With COVID-19, an in-depth study of how the COVID-19 pandemic could influence the desirability and development of deliberate biological threats in the future. The report draws on an extensive survey of biological and weapons of mass destruction experts. It reveals insights on the past, current, and future conditions surrounding the emergence and types of biological weapons threats that should immediately be used to inform U.S. policy. A few key findings include:

  • Over the past century, the top motivations for states which have remained interested in biological weapons appeared to have shifted from strategic deterrence and use on the battlefield toward their potential utility for small-scale or tactical use, including in gray-zone warfare. There are indications that the COVID-19 pandemic might be  a game-changer for some nations, which will once again perceive biological weapons as an important strategic deterrent—in addition, they may be attracted to their potential for use in hybrid or gray-zone conflicts.  
  • Many of the surveyed experts believe that the world’s handling of vaccine distribution, whether inequalities continue to persist or if they are addressed quickly, will strongly influence the confidence of  countries in international cooperation and organizations.
  • The proliferation of high-containment laboratories (Biosafety Level 4 labs in particular) will likely have significant consequences for actual and perceived biological weapons risks if this trend continues, especially if strong norms and standards for biosafety and biosecurity are not advanced globally.

The report begins by conducting a historical examination of the trends, motivations, drivers, inhibitors, and wild cards related to biological weapons over several decades. This sweeping assessment from the 1940s to the current world with COVID-19 highlights the evolving nature of biological weapons risks and how related pathways are likely to intersect today.

Informed by survey results, along with additional discussions with experts, the authors then put forward  three distinct possible futures. These scenarios range from the ‘worst case’ of a polarized world characterized by burgeoning biological weapons programs to the ‘best case’ of strengthened, cohesive, international cooperation to reduce biological weapons threats. 

In scenario 1, the damage caused by COVID-19 leads to the rise of biological weapons as a significant component of deterrence for many nations, with these trends intersecting and feeding into greater security tensions. In scenario 2, fear of future biological threats have instead bolstered international cooperation; states are driven to avoid another catastrophic biological event, working together to better utilize technologies and enhance diplomatic mechanisms. The last scenario is essentially a world caught between the two previous scenarios: a lack of momentum after the current pandemic translates into weak progress in strengthening healthcare systems, waning interest in developing global early warning systems, and a continued rise of biological threats. These scenarios can help policymakers by illustrating the plausible ways biological weapons could shape global affairs – and in turn, provide the foresight needed to make decisions and investments that avoid the worst of these realities.

The report concludes by describing major policy challenges the United States faced even before the COVID-19 pandemic and issues that key stakeholders must address in the near term. These include significant increases in resources for addressing biological threats, increasing focus on nation-state biological weapons threats, and a more concerted effort to exploit the advantages of biotech advances rather than solely focusing on the associated risks.

Check out the report here.


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