CSR Biodefense Scorecard: Highlighting Progress on U.S. Policies & CSR Recommendations

Since its founding, the Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons—an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks—has focused on developing policy recommendations for better addressing biological threats, including those that are significant enough that they could pose potentially existential risks. 

Our policy work became more important in the wake of COVID-19. As the pandemic intensified, it quickly became apparent that governments worldwide lacked the ability to handle an emerging biological threat. Moreover, future events could be worse. Although COVID-19 was horrific, with devastating impacts felt worldwide, the pandemic may ultimately be a comparatively “minor” outbreak—especially in comparison to some of the deadly natural, deliberate, or accidental biological threats that the Nolan Center focuses much of its attention toward combating. Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker shows the pandemic has claimed 1,137,057 lives in the United States by August 15, 2023, and cost the U.S. economy an estimated $14 trillion by the end of 2023. 

Since then, many nations have made significant progress on these issues—both in response to COVID-19 and as a result of rapid advances in science and technology. Recently-announced plans, including the 2022 U.S. and 2023 UK biodefense strategies, signal that countries are taking these threats seriously and dedicating real capabilities to tackling biological risks. Although much remains to be done, these policies are a step in the right direction and align closely with many of CSR’s past recommendations. 

As these new strategies enter implementation stages, we are kicking off a writing series to publicly highlight the progress we are monitoring. This is the first in an ongoing series that will highlight the status of key Nolan Center recommendations we made in the past. While it focuses on several major successes, in the future we will include areas that need improvement. Our aim is to help a broad audience understand what is improving and what gaps remain, and reemphasize the central roles of biodefense, biosecurity, and global health security efforts in promoting U.S. national and global security. 

Here are four clear U.S. government successes from the past few years. For each, there is strong evidence that they have already driven real progress.

✓ Launch ARPA-H and Commit to Significant Investment

In 2021, as part of its Handbook for Ending Catastrophic Biological Risks, CSR recommended that the U.S. government launch the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and urged the agency to prioritize infectious disease-relevant research. Initially proposed in the 2010s, policymakers and scientists envisioned ARPA-H as a health-focused version of organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s in-house innovator focused on game-changing tech. As part of this mission, the agency would focus on making high-risk/high-reward investments in breakthrough technologies with the potential to transform medicine and far better address biological risks. 

Despite this vital role, it unfortunately took a global pandemic to realize this goal. Congress finally appropriated funding for ARPA-H in 2022. Per its initial objectives, the organization’s mission is to “benefit the health of all Americans by catalyzing health breakthroughs that cannot be readily accomplished through traditional research or commercial activity.” The backgrounds of the agency’s first Program Managers, like Dr. Andy Kilianski (previously at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, now referred to by its acronym IAVI, and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense), indicate that vaccine innovation and other medical countermeasures for emerging infectious diseases will be a priority investment area. Another positive sign is that Dr. Renee Wegryzn, the agency’s inaugural director, has a strong background in biosecurity and infectious disease research and policy. She previously served as a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, as a synthetic biology and biosecurity specialist at DARPA, and a senior adviser at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. 

✓ Appoint and Confirm the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs

For years, CSR called for U.S. presidents to appoint and the Senate to confirm biosecurity champions as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs (ACD(NCB)). This recommendation was included in CSR’s aforementioned 2021 Handbook, as well as other publications and outreach efforts over the past several years. Despite the assistant secretary’s vital role in formulating and managing U.S. biodefense policy, the post was largely unfilled by a Senate-confirmed leader beginning in 2014. Except for Guy Roberts, who held the post for less than a year and a half before resigning in spring 2019, the billet was held exclusively by acting officials. While such officials are normally highly experienced and skilled, they often view their responsibilities as providing continuity until other presidential appointees are confirmed rather than implementing more ambitious new strategic plans. 

In 2021, however, President Joe Biden resolved this situation by nominating Deborah Rosenblum, the then executive vice president at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former career civil servant at the Pentagon with deep experience in countering weapons of mass destruction policy, including addressing biological threats. The Senate confirmed her appointment in July of that year. 

Since then, Rosenblum has led significant efforts to develop and adopt better technologies quickly and increase the resources dedicated to biodefense. She has also made the case for biodefense innovation in public remarks (including at a 2022 CSR webinar), and drawn attention to the need for defense strategies to incorporate agile and resilient systems to compete with China and other potential adversaries. In July 2023, she traveled to Naval Station Norfolk to observe a demonstration of an Enhanced Maritime Biological Detection (EMBD) system on board USS TRUXTUN (DDG 103). The EMBD, developed through the Chemical and Biological Defense Program and Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Division, is a shipboard system providing automated bioagent sampling and detection. Looking ahead, keeping this key role filled by such skilled leaders should remain a high priority.   

✓ Revitalize the Department of Energy’s Biological Security Programs

In 2021, CSR also recommended increasing the U.S. Department of Energy’s representation on biological security issues—a goal that was also being championed by experts in the department and its National Labs. In the past, despite its unique network of laboratories and strong research record on relevant biological issues, the department was frequently left out of high-level national discussions on biosecurity and biodefense. This contributed to its assets being under-appreciated for their potential roles in implementing national bio strategies. 

The department has begun to address this gap, as have other parts of the government. The National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, launched via executive order in September 2022, is helping to integrate the Department of Energy into efforts to strengthen and expand the U.S. bioeconomy. In 2022, the department also introduced (via its National Nuclear Security Administration) a “bioassurance” program designed to enhance the nation’s ability to “anticipate, assess, detect, and mitigate biotechnology and biomanufacturing risks,” securing $20 million in the 2023 budget. The 2024 budget request for the Bioassurance Program is $25 million, with step increases of an additional $5 million per year through 2027 and a final increase to $50.144 million in 2028. This momentum will need to be sustained and continue to grow moving forward. 

✓ Track U.S. Government Spending on Biodefense

CSR has long called for increasing federal spending on biodefense, notably its “10+10 over 10” formula: an average of $10 billion per year for ten years for biosecurity and deterring and addressing biological weapons threats, plus an average of $10 billion per year for global health security and direct pandemic prevention initiatives sustained for ten years. However, to date, actual investments in these areas have been poorly tracked. Although the United States devotes only a tiny fraction of its budget to addressing biological risks, CSR experts have long argued that a better understanding of how and where that money is spent is crucial to improving U.S. policy—especially in response to an increasingly complex geopolitical environment. 

The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “conduct a detailed and comprehensive analysis of federal biodefense programs” and “develop an integrated biodefense budget submission” beginning in 2023. The Biden administration also enshrined this in National Security Memorandum 15. In January of this year, the Biden administration released the first so-called biodefense crosscut that does just that. According to the crosscut, the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget requested roughly $11 billion in discretionary funding for biodefense-related activities across 16 departments and agencies. Although CSR applauds this effort, we will continue to recommend that Washington meet the “10 + 10 over 10” goal in addition to continuing to track progress in detail. 


Together, these policy accomplishments represent significant progress toward CSR’s goal of a world free from catastrophic biological risks. Concrete wins such as establishing ARPA-H, confirming a strong ASD(NCB), enhancing the Department of Energy’s role in biosecurity policy, and tracking federal biodefense spending demonstrate that, after years of comparative neglect, the United States is taking this goal seriously. 

Still, a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. The United States remains far from adequately prepared for another pandemic or similar catastrophic incident, and CSR will continue highlighting gaps in U.S. and global security policies. In further posts tracking our recommendations, we plan to highlight areas where less substantive progress has occurred, alongside the changes CSR believes need to be made.


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