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Biological weapons threat evolving, experts say

Tech advances leading to ‘democratization’ of manufacturing capability

Reps. Michael R. Turner,  right, and Brad Wenstrup participated in a discussion of biological weapons on Friday.
Reps. Michael R. Turner, right, and Brad Wenstrup participated in a discussion of biological weapons on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The threat from biological weapons use by nations or terrorists is entering an era of potentially heightened risk, but the dimensions of the danger are not yet clear, a panel of experts said Friday.

The event took place at Rand Corp., and involved two top House Intelligence Committee Republicans from Ohio and a panel of half a dozen experts.

Rep. Michael R. Turner, the committee’s ranking member, described Friday’s event as part of the committee’s effort to engage academia and think tanks.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a surgeon and an Army reservist, moderated the panel.

Calibrating risk

The panel sorted through conflicting impressions of the threat. It some ways, it has yet to manifest itself. Yet advances in technology appear to make biological weapons manufacturing know-how more widely accessible and the lethality of such agents potentially greater.

On the one hand, there are no obvious indications of a surge in interest in biological weapons among terrorists or adversarial nations, as some observers have predicted the pandemic would trigger, and terrorists have not followed through on their interests in deploying such agents, said John Parachini, a senior international and defense researcher at Rand.

“ISIS and al-Qaida in different times have expressed interest, but given alternatives, what we’ve seen is they moved to other means for conducting their dastardly violence,” Parachini said.

However, what allied intelligence services know about can be assumed to be about one-sixth of what is actually happening, cautioned Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense and a former military intelligence officer and paratrooper.

‘Bio revolution’

The panel’s consensus was that even low-likelihood risks are worth preparing for if the potential harm from them occurring is great enough.

Moreover, if building usable biological weapons remains a challenge for terrorist groups, it is less of a challenge for nations and, most importantly, the barriers to entry in biological weaponry for all parties are going down.

“There’s been a bio revolution in these last 10 years, with convergence of science and computing and AI and data sciences,” said Luciana Borio, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And the acquisition of those technologies and tools have proliferated, and the barriers to acquisition of those tools are lower now. And I think that we are in a very dangerous situation.”

Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at Rand, referred to the “democratization” of the means to make biological weapons. Some of the work of making them can be done on a desktop, he said. The same technologies that have enabled an aerosol form of insulin can be used for nefarious purposes, he noted.

The coronavirus pandemic showed in real time how devastating disease outbreaks can be. If one were deliberately begun, it could be worse.

“The biological threats that are enabled by advances in synthetic biology make it possible to design pathogens that are even more severe, that are even more deadly, than what we find in nature,” said Rand’s president and CEO, Jason Matheny. “And the capabilities are accessible not just to state biological weapons programs that unfortunately persist today, but also to individuals.”

Lessons from social media

The same surveillance networks can detect either natural, human-made or accidentally released pathogens. But telling the difference remains a challenge, George said.

“It is unfortunate that we are in a position now where we just aren’t ever sure: Is it or isn’t it a weapon?” George said.

While naturally occurring disease is typically viewed as something other than a national security threat, the coronavirus took more than 1 million American lives — more than all the country’s wars in the 20th and 21st centuries combined.

Patricia Stapleton, a Rand political scientist, said society’s failure to imagine the ways otherwise beneficial social media can have ill effects carries lessons for the world’s approach to biological weapons.

“There’s an intersection of different types of technologies, and everything’s moving at a speed that we’re not quite sure yet how these things will work or how they can be leveraged in different ways,” Stapleton said. “And so it’s important to actually use the word imagination. Imagine some of these possibilities, these intersections between these types of technologies, how they can be leveraged, to do new and sort of terrible things.”

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