For the last five years I have worked as editor-in-chief of CTC Sentinel, a monthly, independent publication of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point that leverages its network of scholars and practitioners to understand and confront contemporary terror threats. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rising level of concern about the bioterror threat among some of the best and brightest minds should be a Category-5 wake up call for all of us.
What is especially sobering is that the pandemic has exposed the current weak capability of public health systems in even highly developed countries like the United States to respond to a potential future bioterror attack involving a deadly virus.
Unlike in the nuclear field, where access to key know-how and materials is limited to a small number of highly vetted scientists and in which massive resources are needed to surmount the engineering hurdles to weaponization, in the synthetic biology field access has significantly widened around the world to knowledge, tools, and materials that could be used to create bioweapons. These dynamics led scientists at the United States Military Academy at West Point to sound the alarm over the potential future bioterror threat posed by synthetic biology.
They note how in 2016, “a small Canadian research group was successful in constructing infectious horsepox virus [a genetically distinct relative of smallpox] directly from genetic information obtained solely from a public database for the relatively modest sum of $100,000.”
The Canadian team was working to improve public health, but the concern is that not all such undertakings in the future will be well-intentioned. Nor do would-be bioterrorists have to be rogue professional scientists. “As technology increases and spreads, those with a simple home laboratory system may be able to manipulate bacterial and viral genes without expert training or years of experience,” write the West Point scientists. The scientists call for the threat posed by engineered pathogens to be “anticipated and planned for at all levels of government.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, whose memoir “Chemical Warrior” has just been published, told me that action by the international community is urgently needed and overdue “if we are to prevent the potential Armageddon of an engineered highly virulent toxic pathogen.”
(By way of comparison, he said: “Covid-19, a not very virulent but highly transmissible pathogen has brought the world to its knees, and is a huge neon advert to every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist who would do us harm.”)
Noting “the huge increase in Level 4 containment laboratories in all parts of the globe, where the most deadly pathogens are stored,” he is especially worried harmful biological materials could be stolen, spirited away by a rogue insider or accidentally be released.
Nagata stated, “we should confront the question of whether the US counterterrorism community, our policymakers, congressional representatives, and the American people are informed and aware enough of the trajectory we are now on? I believe the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ During my career as a CT operational practitioner, all the way through my final years as the senior CT strategist at NCTC, the amount of energy, focus, and resourcing devoted to bioterrorism is a small fraction of what is still given today to more conventional threats.”
Nagata added: “Like all things in life, we have choices to make about how prepared we wish to be. The question is, will we make them today before a disaster happens or be forced by catastrophe to make them tomorrow?”
Much of the work necessary to counter the bioterror threat from engineered viruses will also translate into greater preparedness for the next naturally occurring pandemic. Biosecurity should be the number one national security and public health priority for whoever resides in the White House during the next four years. The time for action is now.