Former Anthrax Weapons Production Facility, Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan. This facility, now destroyed, had the capability to produce an estimated 300 metric tons of weaponized anthrax in eight months. Courtesy of Andy Weber.

Making Bioweapons Obsolete

From their increasing use and testing of chemical weapons and nuclear weapon capabilities, countries such as North Korea, Syria, and Russia are weakening norms against weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Based on current and emerging technical and political solutions, the strongest American response to this trend would be to set a national, moonshot-level vision for eliminating an entire class of WMD. Biological weapons are a ripe target for such an approach.

In 2019, CSR launched a program on making bioweapons obsolete as a mass-destruction threat. In the years ahead we will flesh out this concept as a policy shift for the United States, and advance practical ideas for meeting this ambitious goal.

While it is not possible to fully end all biological threats, it is increasingly feasible to create a state in which national preparedness, response, and deterrence capabilities are sufficiently advanced that intentional biological attacks would become ineffective in causing catastrophic devastation. Indeed, the U.S. government is already working in this direction in many ways that can be expanded and leveraged toward a bold national vision.     

There are several reasons that CSR is taking this focus in our work. First, a moonshot-level national mission is needed to inspire experts within and outside of government and unite them in a common direction. A concerted national vision can also help galvanize the resources that are necessary to more aggressively counter biological threats that are today rising and growing more complex. 

Additionally, as we’ve explored this concept with experts across the nation over the past year, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is feasible to end the threat of biological weapons as we know it today due to multiple trends combining. These include advances in synthetic biology and gene editing, significantly reduced costs in synthesis and sequencing, the continuing spread of widely accessible materials and techniques, robotics enabling more rapid and cheaper bioproduction, the explosion in data these advances are driving, and more. Making bioweapons obsolete will require policy makers to embrace the new normal of rapid technological change and the ubiquity of biotechnology.

The severity of biothreats also warrants the approach that CSR is advocating: combining a highly ambitious long-term vision with practical steps forward. Traditional bioweapons threats remain concerning, including for their potential catastrophic use by nation-states. Current and emerging technologies are opening new avenues for traditional and novel bioweapons attacks, and making the necessary materials and tools more accessible.

As the CSR team continues this exciting work on making bioweapons obsolete, continue following via our website and on Twitter @CSRisks.

Making Bioweapons Obsolete: A Summary of Workshop Discussions, Prepared By, Anup Singh,  Christine Parthemore, Andrew Weber
February 2020

Fellowship for Ending Bioweapons Programs
Project Leads: Andy Weber and Christine Parthemore