By early March 2020, the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that began in China had killed and sickened thousands, disrupted global trade and travel, and created significant political and logistical disruption to countries and companies across the world.
Biological threats are clearly rising. This is the case for naturally-occurring outbreaks like COVID-19 as well as for deliberate biological attacks. As such, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) and Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) partnered in August 2019 to convene thought leaders in government, academia, and the private sector to look ahead to a future in which these threats are significantly reduced. Here are the results of that dialogue: “Making Bioweapons Obsolete: A Summary of Workshop Discussions.”
This collaboration by CSR and Sandia marks a major milestone in the fight against biological threats given its unique focus on making bioweapons obsolete as tools of mass destruction and disruption. The diverse experts convened explored the potential to use strategy, technology advances, policy, and other tools to meet this ambitious national vision.
“We need a moonshot-level, inspirational goal regarding biological threats,” said Honorable Andy Weber, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs and Senior Fellow at CSR. “When we convene top experts to explore the concept of making bioweapons obsolete, we are usually met with great enthusiasm and a feeling that the United States can really achieve this vision. Indeed, it is largely an expansion on the work the U.S. government has accomplished to date in addressing smallpox threats to America with an extensive vaccine stockpiling system and its development of vaccines for viruses such as Ebola.”
Experts attending the 2019 CSR-Sandia workshop on which this report is based focused significant attention on the wide range of ways in which deliberate biological attacks could and would be used against the United States or other nations.
“Though the world made significant strides in dismantling Cold War-era bioweapons program, the threat of biological weapons being employed by nation states or sub-state groups has not gone away,” said Christine Parthemore, Chief Executive Officer of CSR who formerly worked on countering weapons of mass destruction threats at the Department of Defense. “The good news is that it is possible to significantly reduce the risks of strategic-level biological attacks. Just as important, the United States taking a leadership position focused on eliminating an entire class of weapons of mass destruction would be a significant step toward reestablishing norms against their use and possession.”
Meeting the vision of making bioweapons obsolete would require a surge in coordinated efforts across academia, government, and innovative businesses. Policymakers understanding the rise of biological threats—and supporting and expanding upon U.S. expertise and infrastructure that can be called into action—will be critical.
According to Anup Singh, director of the Biological and Engineering Sciences at Sandia, addressing the rising threats bioweapons present across the U.S. and around the world will require using strategy, technology advances, policy and other tools.
“This is an extremely interesting time in biotechnology with the revolutionary advances in genome editing, synthetic biology and convergent technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics,” Singh said. “Academia and the private sector are driving a variety of biotechnology innovations and it is imperative that we engage them in solving the problem together with traditional national security partners.”
– Provides insights on key technological trends
– Raises questions of the data and information access required for rapidly characterizing and responding to biological attacks and outbreaks
– Explores market and supply chain dynamics in depth
– Points to significant U.S. government capacities that can be leveraged and expanded, including its vast testing and evaluation infrastructure and demand-pull functions
– Highlights the need for coordinated outreach and education to policymakers, in particular by academic and private sector experts
– Drives home the critical importance of U.S. leadership
Though it is a naturally-occurring outbreak, the current COVID-19 crisis shows the mass disruption that biological threats can create—and drives home why such threats may be attractive to those wishing to cause strategic levels of devastation. The time to act is now.
Direct inquiries to:
CSR news media contact: Francesco Femia, firstname.lastname@example.org, Whatsapp: +1-571-263-5691
Sandia news media contact: Paul Rhien, email@example.com, 925.294.6452
About the Council on Strategic Risks. The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is a nonprofit, non-partisan security policy institute devoted to anticipating, analyzing and addressing core systemic risks to security in the 21st century, with special examination of the ways in which these risks intersect and exacerbate one another. CSR’s program on making bioweapons obsolete is part of its Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons.
About Sandia National Laboratories. For more than 60 years, Sandia has delivered essential science and technology to resolve the nation’s most challenging security issues. Sandia National Laboratories is operated and managed by National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, LLC. (NTESS), a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International, Inc., as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and supports numerous federal, state, and local government agencies, companies, and organizations.