Today the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is releasing an update to its report entitled Understanding the Threat of Biological Weapons in a World with COVID-19—with a significantly expanded Part III and an accompanying video call-to-action. The updated report features a new final chapter with policy recommendations that would help accelerate the United States toward that goal. The video (below) outlines worst-case, best-case, and ambiguous future scenarios for how COVID-19 could influence biological weapons threats and highlights the urgent need for bold policies aimed at making biological weapons obsolete as a mass-destruction threat.
In only a few short months since the report’s initial release in February, the world has experienced two major events that further raise concerns regarding the extreme consequences of biological threats. First, the United States is about to officially surpass 1 million deaths from COVID-19: a tragic milestone and surely an underestimation of COVID-19’s impact in the United States, given the CDC estimates that the true death count is likely more than 1.3 million and extensive additional damage is not captured in this single number.
Second, in late February, Russia invaded Ukraine and has since led a months-long attack on Ukrainian territory. During this time, Russia has continued a concentrated and unceasing disinformation campaign, falsely accusing the United States and Ukraine of funding and operating biological weapons laboratories within Ukrainian borders. Russia has expanded its accusations to other countries as well, falsely claiming the United States funds over 300 biological weapons labs in 30 countries. This effort from the Russian government, along with support from the Chinese government, is intended to erode trust in the United States and sow doubt in the international community. Disinformation campaigns such as these are critical to combat for many reasons, but chief among them is the possibility that they may be part of plans for Russia to actually conduct biological or chemical weapons attacks in Ukraine via a false-flag operation.
Given these developments, it is critical to continue working towards making the world safer from biological threats. The updated chapter in the report is focused specifically on translating lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic into recommendations for strengthening U.S. policy for countering biological threats—including the ways in which the extreme damage caused by COVID-19 could perversely influence some actors to be more attracted to biological weapons. CSR’s recommendations include:
- The United States must demonstrate continued support for pandemic prevention and near-term successes. For actors who are considering developing or using biological weapons, the perceived ability of the United States (and other nations they may target) to curtail damage from an infectious disease outbreak could affect their cost-benefit calculations. This is a variable that the United States can and should influence.
- The United States must take a better approach to deterrence and biodefense. The Department of Defense needs to alter how it views deterrence against biological weapons, increase support for programs that address biological threats, and smartly telegraph its initiatives in ways that contribute to both deterrence and transparency. Among other steps, the Department of Defense should immediately begin augmenting biodefense capabilities in key locations where there is concern regarding other nations possessing and potentially using biological weapons. This work should be done with transparency, both to showcase improvements in defenses and to emphasize that defense is the driver.
- The United States must significantly increase international collaboration. A lack of progress in strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and World Health Organization (WHO) would contribute strongly to the least-optimal scenarios described in the report and accompanying video. Many of the contributing experts indicated that a lack of governance and transparency regarding high-containment bio labs will be a powerful driver regarding future biological weapons threats and perceptions. The United States and other nations should lead a near-term push to fill such gaps, in addition to immediately reversing declining budgets for key U.S. initiatives such as the Biological Threat Reduction Program.
- The United States must account for and shape the information environment. Biological weapons threats are a major theme in mis- and disinformation campaigns, and this is not going to change in the near term. U.S. agencies must remain mindful of this challenge as they advance biodefense activity and multinational biosecurity cooperation activities—yet it is imperative that information warfare challenges are not seen as excuses to reduce such activities. Indeed, that is one driving goal of nations like Russia that seek to reduce such cooperation.
- The United States must combine efforts across the public and private sectors. A significant theme in the work behind this report was the need to improve the trading of information and lessons across the public and private sectors—and increase the ease of public-private collaboration. More regular conversations about technology trends among cutting-edge experts and government officials need to occur to better prioritize government investments and prevent the formation of information silos that contribute to misconceptions of illicit biodefense activities.
The status quo remains an alarming prospect and significant action is required to avoid a future where biological weapons remain a viable and attractive option for malicious actors. Check out CSR’s short video highlighting the different ways in which biological weapons threats could be shaped by the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including scenarios in which these threats grow worse or are significantly mitigated, or a world in which trends in both directions continue to drive a murky and dangerous security environment.
Part III of this report was updated with the addition of a new co-author, Dr. Ryan Duncombe, whose expertise in immunology and biosecurity contributed significantly to CSR’s work.