Biosecurity in the Wake of COVID-19: The Urgent Action Needed.

AuthorBreton-Gordon, Hamish de

With a quarter of a million dead in the United States and more than a million globally, a massive economic toll, (a) and a second wave in full swing in the northern hemisphere, the United States and other countries are paying a price for years of neglecting biosecurity (b) as a top-tier national security priority. For years, biosecurity has been the poor relation of the 'other' securities for one simple reason: policymakers and analysts failed to grasp just how devastating a highly transmissible new virus in a highly interconnected world could be, and viewed a devastating global pandemic or catastrophic bioterror attack as very unlikely.

This article first describes how the COVID-19 pandemic has upended such assumptions, requiring policymakers to rethink both the potential impact and likelihood of the most concerning biological threats (bio threats). Based on this author's decades of experience confronting CBRN threats, (c) it then makes a series of observations on the approach now needed to counter biological threats.

Some have seen this crisis as a one-in-a-100-year event. But, as this article will outline, this is both naive and risks creating complacency. Unless countries around the world develop a comprehensive biosecurity strategy and coordinate their eforts, pandemics (either natural or engineered) could devastate the planet every decade.

The New Bio Threat Horizon

The Need to Rethink Potential Impact

Policymakers around the world did not grasp just how large the impact of a bio threat could be. Beyond the enormous human and economic impact, the current pandemic has exposed the weakness, lack of preparedness, and poor responsiveness of healthcare systems of even highly developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. And the virus has inficted carnage, even though SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is not especially virulent. The world may be confronted with other viruses in the future whose combination of virulence (the harm a pathogen does to its host), transmissibility, and other characteristics pose much greater danger.

While overwhelming evidence points to SARS-CoV-2 spontaneously spreading to humans, the advances in synthetic biology and the growth in the number of Level 3 and 4 biocontainment facilities around the world storing deadly viruses (1) mean there is also the very real possibility that in the future, bad actors will try to engineer or steal/obtain a highly transmissible and highly virulent virus and unleash it onto the world. Another risk is accidental releases from such biocontainment facilities.

COVID-19, a highly transmissible but not very virulent pathogen, has had a devastating global impact, a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by rogue states and terror organizations. Advances in synthetic biology have created tools that could be put to malevolent use. In the last two decades, scientists synthesized the poliovirus from its genetic sequence, (2) recreated the 1918 Spanish fu virus, (3) and succeeded in modifying the H5N1 avian fu virus so that it resulted (in a research laboratory) in airborne transmission among mammals. (4) In the future, we should think of weaponized biology as no less of an existential threat to the planet than weaponized atomic science. It should also be noted that the fear and panic that even a medium-scale bioterror attack could create could have dangerous implications that may rival or even surpass the immediate loss of life.

The Need to Rethink Likelihood

Given the fact that in late 2019 when, as far as is known, COVID-19 cases first started emerging in China, it had been more than a century since the previous catastrophic outbreak (the 1918-1919 "Spanish fu" pandemic), (d) it was unsurprising that many thought of such pandemics as a one-in-a-100-year event. Such assumptions should no longer hold. The encroachment of human settlements into areas that had previously been sanctuaries for wildlife (5) and the popularity in some parts of the world of markets where people and wild animals are brought into proximity have made it more likely viruses will make the species leap to human beings. (e) And when they do, as the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated, the interconnectedness of a world in which millions of people fy each day (6) means they can spread very rapidly.

There is also growing concern about engineered viruses. Not only have advances in synthetic biology (SynBio) created growing capacity for extremely dangerous viruses to be engineered in a laboratory, but the number of people with access to potentially dangerous 'dual use' technology has greatly expanded and continues to expand, making malevolent use of such technology ever more likely. In the August 2020 issue of this publication, scientists at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point warned that:

The wide availability of the protocols, procedures, and techniques necessary to produce and modify living organisms combined with an exponential increase in the availability of genetic data is leading to a revolution in science afecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb. As the technology improves, the level of education and skills necessary to engineer biological agents decreases. Whereas only state actors historically had the resources to develop and employ biological weapons, SynBio is changing the threat paradigm.

The cost threshold of engineering viruses is also lowering, with the West Point scientists warning that synthetic biology has "placed the ability to recreate some of the deadliest infectious diseases known well within the grasp of the state-sponsored terrorist and the talented non-state actor." (7)

As already noted, another source of vulnerability is that deadly viruses could be stolen from or escape from a research laboratory. There are now around 50 Biosafety Level 4 (f) facilities around the world, where the deadliest pathogens are stored and worked on, and this figure is set to increase in the next few years. (g) This is a large increase over the last 30 years, creating bigger risk of a breach. Of equal, if not greater concern are the thousands of Biosafety Level 3 labs globally, (8) which handle deadly pathogens like COVID-19. (9) Given what has been outlined above, the risk of a future destructive biological attack or another devastating global pandemic should no longer be seen as low. From this point forward, there should no higher priority for the international community than biosecurity.

Improving Biosecurity

The United States and the international community need to prepare for the next pandemic or a potential large-scale bioterror event to ensure physical, psychological, and economic resilience. This will be no easy task. As noted by one writer, "the emerging nature of biosecurity threats means that small-scale risks can blow up rapidly" making it challenging to create effective policies to anticipate them because "there are limitations on time and resources available for analyzing threats, and estimating the likelihood of their occurrence." (10) Another challenge, which has complicated the response to COVID-19, is the likely deluge of mis- and dis-information (11) in future biological emergencies, making it more dificult to win public approval for the necessary public health response. The global scale of the threat is another challenge. In an interconnected world where a virus can spread from one side of the planet to the other in less than 24 hours, a coordinated approach is vital.

What follows is a series of observations on what I believe are the precepts that need to guide the United States and other countries' biosecurity strategies moving forward.


Given how dificult it is to stop the spread of certain infectious diseases, everything needs to be done to prevent future pandemics from occurring and bad actors from weaponizing viruses. The former needs to be the highest global health priority. The latter needs to be the highest national security priority. There needs to be a conversation about...

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