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The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the often-quoted adage that biological threats do not respect national borders. An infectious disease threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. Over a year into the pandemic, we have all seen first-hand the significant toll that COVID-19 has had on our global society's economic and social structures, including its impact on militaries and defense departments around the world.  Presently, and historically, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has maintained comprehensive capabilities to counter global biological threats.  These capabilities must continue and improve as technology advances and as threats persist and evolve.

DoD, along with numerous United States Government Departments and Agencies, monitors all Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threats. The DoD biological threat reduction mission is extensive and complex. Expertise is required from across the Department’s components to ensure the effective development, integration, and implementation of guidance, analysis, capabilities, and activities.  This vast enterprise works collaboratively and efficiently to prevent the accidental or deliberate release of harmful pathogens, detect and diagnose naturally occurring outbreaks of security concern quickly, and respond to and contain outbreaks.

While the entire WMD threat spectrum requires and receives DoD’s full attention, there are growing concerns regarding infectious disease threats and their potential impact on U.S. national security and defense interests. This includes the health and operational readiness of U.S. forces, allies, and partners abroad; impairing national security partnerships by producing long-term economic, political, and security destabilization; and diverting DoD's attention, resources, and capabilities from long-term strategic defense objectives to meet the immediate needs of an outbreak. DoD must continue to monitor, evaluate, and resource the biological threat reduction enterprise to effectively counter existing and emerging global threats.  This article explores the biological threat landscape, how COVID-19 has impacted its outlook, and the cruciality of allies, partners, and international organizations in the Department's effort.

Threat Landscape

In an always changing threat landscape, DoD is positioned to address a range of biological threats, regardless of how or where they arise. This includes naturally occurring infectious disease outbreaks and accidental or deliberate release of biological threat agents; threats posed by State and non-State actors; international and domestic outbreaks; and potential threats posed by existing and emerging technologies, which hold both promise and peril in their applications.

COVID-19 is further altering this threat landscape. The wide-reaching and destabilizing impact that infectious disease outbreaks can have on the world may result in greater interest by terrorist organizations in developing or utilizing bioweapons. Further, nefarious actors may seek to exploit security vulnerabilities in laboratories currently housing dangerous pathogens to obtain such samples. Adding to this problem is the increasing number of high containment facilities worldwide that house the most dangerous pathogens, some of which lack suitable security measures to protect their pathogen stockpiles. 

While emerging technologies, biotechnologies, in particular, provide unbelievable potential for our economy and global health, they also pose a significant challenge. Like gene editing and synthetic biology, emerging biotechnologies could reduce the barrier to biological weapon development as they become more readily accessible by the general public. Other technologies may pose additional challenges. For example, 3D printing may help facilitate complex, previously costly, and difficult-to-procure equipment necessary for producing biological agents or deadly pathogens.  Or, advances in drone technology may aid in the targeted dissemination of biological threat agents.  Furthermore, the inherently dual-use nature of biological capabilities makes countering the proliferation of biological-related technologies, material, and expertise even more challenging. 

Lastly, a vulnerability that spans all of these aforementioned threats is insufficient cybersecurity capabilities.  These concerns are real and present, potentially creating, among other things, the ability for an outsider to conduct technical and/or physical penetration of facilities containing biological agents; potential manipulation of existing genomic sequences within facilities; and theft of pathogens that could be used for nefarious purposes.

Role of the DoD CWMD Community

The Department takes a leading role internationally in reducing the threats of WMDs. Many different parts of DoD spanning services, components, and geographic combatant commands each play a critical function in an integrated system for preventing, mitigating, and responding to biological threats.  The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering WMD (DASD CWMD) has a unique role in focusing on the WMD linkage of various biological threats. This role is tasked with ensuring the United States, its allies, and partners are neither attacked nor coerced by actors with WMD or WMD-related capabilities. With respect to biological threats, the DASD CWMD focuses on activities to prevent, detect, and respond to high-consequence biological incidents, regardless of origin.  One significant program that has long worked to address these threats is the DoD Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which is executed by the highly capable Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

As it relates to biological threats, the primary mission of the DoD CTR Program is to reduce the proliferation of biological weapons (BW), BW components, and BW-related technologies and expertise. It is also charged with facilitating the detection and reporting of diseases caused by especially dangerous pathogens, regardless of whether they are naturally occurring or the result of accidental or deliberate release. The DoD CTR Program works with international partners to accomplish its threat reduction mission in three ways.

First, DoD CTR, through DTRA, assists partner nations in developing sufficient capabilities to counter biological threats—most notably by working to improve biosafety and biosecurity (BS&S) and biosurveillance (BSV) capacities—with the goal of transitioning ownership and sustainment of these capabilities to the host nation. By doing so, the DoD CTR Program is reducing long-term reliance of partner nations on DoD assistance and is building a network of capable partners able to address emerging biological threats collectively.

Second, the program promotes cross-border collaboration between partner nations to encourage regionalized, networked approaches toward biological security. Partner nations are actively encouraged to assume regional leadership roles in this space. This includes data sharing regarding outbreaks of especially dangerous pathogens, promoting BS&S and BSV best practices within a region, fostering international scientific research engagements, and integrating national BS&S and BSV capabilities into regional efforts, thereby leveraging collective assets to advance shared threat reduction objectives.

Finally, DoD CTR works with other nations to identify mutual biological threat reduction objectives, align and de-conflict activities, and pool resources, including through international forums like the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and the Global Health Security Agenda. These coordinated and collective efforts allow the simultaneous reduction of the financial burden on DoD while maximizing the impacts of our shared biological threat reduction investments.

The DoD CTR Program and COVID-19

Since 2004, the DoD CTR Program has provided equipment and training to more than 130 institutions in over 30 countries. The goal is to improve their ability to detect, diagnose, and report unusual biological incidents and outbreaks of pandemic potential. These capabilities have helped bolster partner nations’ abilities to quickly detect and diagnose the current COVID-19 outbreak. Two prime examples of this include the Lugar Center in Georgia and the Central Reference Laboratory in Kazakhstan. DoD has continued to encourage partner nations to leverage capabilities previously provided by the DoD CTR Program in their domestic COVID-19 response efforts.

The DoD CTR Program has been a critical part of the response to COVID-19 as it continues to receive foreign partner requests for preparedness and detection support related to the outbreak. DoD provides biosafety, biosecurity, and biosurveillance support to aid in detecting, diagnosing, and reporting COVID-19 in more than 30 countries. This also includes providing such vital supplies as diagnostic testing reagents, decontamination devices, virtual training, and disinfectant solutions to help partner nations combat the virus.

Importance of Partnerships

A critical component of the Department’s strategy for countering biological threats is working in close coordination with interagency and international partners. No individual department or agency does it alone.  It takes strong, durable alliances and partnerships to advance long-term U.S. interests, maintaining favorable balances of power that deter aggression and help lessen the security burden placed on DoD. Pooling resources and working toward shared objectives for our common defense is paramount to ensuring U.S. security and defense interests are met. Continuing to deepen the level of cooperation amongst partner and allied countries on biothreat reduction activities is critical to achieving DoD biological threat reduction long-term goals. 

Looking to the Future

Looking forward, the collective capabilities and expertise of biological threat reduction-related stakeholders across DoD and with interagency and international allies and partners are essential to addressing the biological threats of 2021 and those that may appear in the future. DoD will undoubtedly continue working to mitigate the likelihood of and impacts from outbreaks of especially dangerous pathogens—regardless of whether such outbreaks are naturally occurring or the result of deliberate or accidental release of a biological agent—while at the same time positioning the Department both to utilize emerging technologies and to counter the threats posed by them. In this way, DoD will continue to play a pivotal role in countering biological threats worldwide, including infectious diseases like COVID-19.


David F. Lasseter is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction.



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