Event Summary: How are Biological Threats Evolving?

By Lillian Parr

On February 18, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted a webinar entitled How are Biological Threats Evolving? in a World with COVID-19. Given that we have entered a third year dealing with a relentless global pandemic, this event paid particular attention to how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the nature and potential manifestations of natural, accidental, and deliberate biological threats: threats that the U.S. and global partners may have to further consider given the destabilizing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

CSR’s Chair of the Board, the Honorable Sherri Goodman, provided opening remarks to the event and introduced the webinar’s keynote speaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, the Honorable Deborah Rosenblum.

ASD Deborah Rosenblum’s keynote emphasized that a number of geopolitical and technological issues have dramatically shifted the biological threat landscape. Geopolitically, Rosenblum noted how the erosion of international norms, particularly in chemical weapons, is both a major cause for concern and may portend a similar erosion of norms against the research and use of biological weapons. Technologically, she noted that the rapid advancement of knowledge and capabilities in the life sciences, as well as the convergence of biology with other technological disciplines, are presenting opportunities to both state and non-state actors to make the research, production, and potential use of biological agents easier for tactical and strategic ends. 

ASD Rosenblum continued her keynote by discussing the Department of Defense’s Biodefense Posture Review (BPR): the first-ever review of its kind in the department’s history. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s biodefense memo from November 2021 notes, the BPR is meant to “assess the biological threat landscape and establish the Department’s approach to biodefense, to include clarifying biodefense priorities, roles, responsibilities, authorities, capabilities, and posture.” As one of the co-chairs of this BPR, Rosenblum provided unique insights on the current progress and end goals of this inaugural effort, and noted that it “presents a unique opportunity to be ready for and prepare for the full spectrum of biological threats, whether naturally occurring, accidental, or from a deliberate attack.”

ASD Rosenblum’s insights regarding trends for specific defense programs were particularly illuminating. For example, Ms. Rosenblum highlighted how the Department of Defense (DoD) has already started pivoting towards new approaches for addressing novel and emerging biological threats. She particularly praised how mission-critical programs such as the Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) have already started this pivot by taking advantage of the convergence of technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning with biodefense, “to increase the speed of defensive capability development and fielding.” 

She identified several main areas in which DoD should pivot its efforts in order to best address current and emergent biological threats:

  • Detection and understanding: integrating all available sensors and systems for early detection of changes in the environment rather than waiting for symptoms to manifest in personnel 
  • Defending from within: changing how we approach medical countermeasures and best protect personnel against negative effects, including by leveraging already-approved medications for additional purposes
  • Protecting and mitigating against the effects that biological agents can have on infrastructure, including innovative new approaches to decontamination (e.g., waterless or autonomous systems)

In addition to her remarks on CBDP, ASD Rosenblum also drew attention to the importance of the Biological Threat Reduction Program, highlighting that it “provides a layered defense to our country by strengthening all of our partners’ capabilities.” She noted that BTRP’s efforts strive to enable “our foreign partners to be able to independently detect and report emerging outbreaks, which provides an additional early warning system for the United States and our armed forces and allies abroad.”

Building on this keynote and an engaging Q&A session, this webinar then transitioned to an expert panel discussion. These three panelists, whose collective experience spans across academia, industry, government, and the non-profit sectors, engaged in a further conversation with CSR Senior Fellow and predecessor to ASD Rosenblum in that role, the Honorable Andy Weber

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Centre for Science & Security at King’s College London, echoed ASD Rosenblum’s remarks with regard to the breakage of norms against WMD. She also pointed out additional geopolitical drivers of change in biological threats, such as “new allegations and counter-allegations of non-compliant biological activities.” Another phenomenon of particular concern for her is that “high containment labs that work with the most dangerous pathogens are increasingly being constructed all over the globe.” She concluded by noting that, as a social scientist, she understands that it is not an inevitability that society lives in fear of technology and nefarious usage of the life sciences. Rather, she presented a message of hope by noting that society could control the direction in which technology developed.

Dr. Kevin Esvelt, Associate Professor and Leader of the Sculpting Evolution Group at MIT, focused on the transformation of the biothreat landscape due to technological advancements, saying that “biotech has been undergoing an absolute renaissance” and that tools like CRISPR have “not only transformed the threat landscape; they’ve also transformed the potential biodefense landscape — in fact, they’ve even expanded the strategic game board.” Another risk that Dr. Esvelt highlighted was that “access to viruses has grown tremendously,” due to “progress in protocols for virus assembly” and the ease of ordering non-screened synthetic DNA. Despite these challenges, Dr. Esvelt expressed hope that technological progress will allow these threats to be addressed, noting that non-targeted metagenomic sequencing, effective synthetic DNA screening, and improved PPE are all critical solutions.

Our final panelist, CSR CEO and Director of the Nolan Center Christine Parthemore, shared the findings of a recent CSR report she co-authored titled Understanding the Threat of Biological Weapons in a World with COVID-19. This report, which surveyed biothreat experts to analyze and tease out key themes and their implications for how biological threats are evolving, provided a first cut at the unique world that experts are seeing emerge in a COVID-19 world. She highlighted a few key findings of this report, including that it will matter significantly whether “nations double down on preparedness and actively showcase this progress, or if they revert back to cycles of neglect in addressing infectious disease threats.”

We’d like to thank all of our panelists and our keynote speaker for such a fascinating conversation, and for engaging with our audience questions. 

The webinar can be found here.

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