The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world in a stronger way than other recent crises. Within two months, the entire global economy has been shuttered and most states are only in the early stages of planning a reopening. Most of the focus, aside from the health concern, has revolved around economic issues. In the US, the coronavirus has also peeled back a layer of its defense capabilities to reveal a major vulnerability to biological attacks.
Decades of Research on Bio Warfare
The idea of biological warfare is not new. In fact, the US military experimented with biological weapons of its own starting in the 1950s. The American military often spread diseases among small groups of the population, usually without their knowledge or consent. It even sprayed whole cities with chemicals to determine their effectiveness.
The Defense Department’s biological experiments were classified for decades and when they became public knowledge, the government explained they were “to deter [the biological weapons against the United States and its allies and to retaliate if deterrence failed.”
“[W]hen you talk about exposing millions of people to potential harm, by spreading around certain chemicals or biological agents, the quantitative effect of that is just unbelievable,” wrote Dr. Leonard Cole, who chronicled the government’s efforts in his book, Clouds of Secrecy: The Army’s Germ Warfare Tests Over Populated Areas.
Initially, biological warfare was considered for use in a more traditional war setting, such as World War II. However, in recent times, bioweapons could also be well-suited for use by terrorists for a number of reasons.
Perfect Instrument of Death
“It’s only a matter of months—years, at most—before people nail down the genes for virulence and airborne transmission in influenza, Ebola, Lassa, you name it,” said Dr. Karl Johnson who helped lead the fight against Ebola. “And then any crackpot with a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment and a college biology education under his belt could manufacture bugs that would make Ebola look like a walk around the park.”
Terrorists have already weaponized diseases, notably in 2001 when anthrax-laced letters were sent to top officials. In that case, however, exposure to the bacteria was very limited as the attacks targeted specific individuals and were not designed to be widespread.
However, the next time could be different if terrorists borrow a page from both events — the weaponized Anthrax disease and general inability of the American government to react in a timely fashion.
Eyes on China and Russia
Then, there are also state actors, such as China and Russia, which have the capabilities to leverage biological attacks. A 2009 US government report concluded that Beijing has an active biological weapons program, The Australian reported. Worse, the Chinese military may be harnessing artificial intelligence to pursue biotechnology capable of inflicting “specific ethnic genetic attacks.” Such weapons could be used in ethnic cleansing campaigns domestically, or to hone in on characteristics of enemies abroad.
Unlike traditional attacks, biological weapons are significantly harder to prepare for. They can’t be located from reconnaissance drones or metal detectors before boarding an airplane. Armed guards can’t restrain them and a military can’t shoot them.
The US Isn’t Even Close to Ready for a Bio Attack
In a sense, a biological weapon could be the perfect instrument for a terrorist attack. COVID-19 has shown the world the US is wholly unprepared for a biological attack.
“We haven’t seen anything that appears to be this pathogenic and transmissible since maybe 1918 or 1957,” said a U.S. government official on condition of anonymity. Washington’s response “shows that we don’t have the systems in place to rapidly diagnose cases, or to scale up a mass response very quickly.
“We are in the realm now where biological weapons are really becoming possible. People have talked about [gene-editing in bioweapons] for 50 years. … It is not science fiction anymore. Literally in the last five years we’ve crossed that threshold.”
Even if a vaccine existed, there would be no way to distribute it to every American as the transportation sector is shutdown, as POLITICO reported.
If biological weapons have been on the radar for 70 years and if officials understood the lack of preparedness, warning about it for years, why has America failed its test?
“Despite significant progress on several fronts, the Nation is dangerously vulnerable to a biological event,” reads a report from the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. “The root cause of this continuing vulnerability is the lack of strong centralized leadership at the highest level of government.”
Unless Washington has a president willing to take biodefense seriously, it will continue to remain vulnerable. After the Ebola outbreak, former President Barack Obama prioritized health security and created an office for it within the National Security Council. During the transition for President Donald Trump, Obama’s team led an exercises on pandemic response for the incoming administration.
Even under Trump, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted an exercise known as “Crimson Contagion” in 2019, which simulated the coronavirus outbreak with eerie resemblances. It concluded America was unprepared for such an event.
The office for Global Heath Security was cut, and for the most part, Trump officials who participated in the pandemic exercise are no longer at the White House. Trump also proposed funding cuts for the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and paused funding for the World Health Organization.
Against overwhelming evidence that America is unprepared, the president has done everything possible to ensure it remains that way. No amount of policies or offices created can make a difference if the next guy in charge doesn’t treat a biological threat seriously.
The US response to COVID-19 was slow and disorganized, especially compared with other states that immediately instituted emergency measures like South Korea. Even now, some US governors are trying to reopen their states despite overwhelming evidence that America is not ready.
In a 2006 interview with Discover, retired Army Col. David R. Franz shared his experience of researching biological warfare and bioterrorism. His prediction of life after a biological outbreak rings true today:
“I think we would change our lifestyles very quickly. We would probably travel a lot less, we would probably wear masks when we go to the grocery store, we would probably wash our hands a lot more.”