The Pentagon needs to improve defenses and readiness against biological weapons attacks and is ill-prepared for potential germ warfare attacks from China or other adversaries, according to a new biodefense posture report.
The report’s authors warn that foreign biological warfare threats are increasing as adversaries develop germ and toxin weapons, some of which are being developed in civilian research and will be difficult to identify and trace if converted to weapons of war.
The Pentagon and military are “at a pivotal moment in biodefense” and face “an unprecedented number of complex biological threats,” concluded the biological posture review report made public recently in response to a request from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Pentagon efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted weaknesses in biodefenses, including supply chain problems and shortcomings in mitigating the disease outbreak, the report said. Some materials needed for disease defense, including masks and hand sanitizer, were not stockpiled.
The report said climate change also would lead to more emerging infectious diseases that could threaten military readiness. However, the report provided no evidence to support the claim.
The report recommends improving the ability of the military to “fight and win in the face of any future biothreat” and learn from the pandemic on how to better operate in a future disease outbreak.
The main goal of the biodefense review is to better defend the homeland from “the growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” the report’s authors write. Other goals include deterring general strategic attacks, and deterring aggression by China in the Indo-Pacific region and Russia in Europe.
The report identified problems in Pentagon biodefenses, including the need for a unified approach to the biological threats, poor intelligence on threats, and shortfalls in readiness and preparedness for dealing with biological threats, both from weapons and natural dangers. The U.S. intelligence community has so far been unable to pinpoint the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and lacked scientific expertise regarding the disease outbreak.
The review recommends boosting intelligence, making military forces more resilient to biological threats and improving strategic coordination and collaboration.
The Defense Department “must take the threat and risk from bio-incidents seriously and implement the significant reforms outlined in this review to lay the foundation for a resilient total force that deters the use of bioweapons, rapidly responds to natural outbreaks, and minimizes the global risk of laboratory accidents,” the report said.
The danger of biological threats emerging from laboratory accidents may be growing as the number of facilities around the world engage in high-risk research that can cause pandemics. Many have raised questions about the role of China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in the origins of COVID-19, but the study does not directly address them.
Regarding weapons, the report stated that “the use of biological weapons or their proliferation by state or non-state actors presents a significant challenge to our national security, our people, our agriculture and the environment.”
Several nations have clandestine biological arms programs and terrorist groups have sought their acquisition, the report said.
“The PRC, Russia, North Korea, and Iran probably maintain the knowledge and capability to produce and employ traditional pathogens and toxins,” the report said. “These countries historically pursued, and at least one country (North Korea) continues to pursue, pathogens that cause highly infectious or contagious diseases, such as anthrax, plague, and toxins, including botulinum toxin.”
The states also have the ability to employ the agents in warfare.
Adversaries also can use ostensibly civilian technology for weapons development, including peptide synthesis technology and metabolic engineering.
“Advances in both synthetic biology and peptide synthesis could enable states to develop a wide range of novel toxins with both incapacitating and lethal effects that are not on a select agent list,” the report said.
The toxins could include animal toxins, marine toxins and plant toxins.
Thea D. Rozman Kendler, assistant commerce secretary for export control, told a House hearing last month that new controls have been placed on synthetic biology and genomic editing technology to prevent China from building toxin weapons.
The Office of Director of National Intelligence reported that progress in synthetic biology and genomic editing “could enable the development of novel biological weapons that evade detection, attribution, and treatment,” she said.
Software for nucleic acid assembly and synthesis also can be used to build genetic weapons from digital sequence data. “This data can then be manipulated to create novel pathogens or enhance existing ones,” Ms. Rozman Kendler said.
The Commerce Department also is considering controls on peptide synthesizers.
“These technologies make it quicker and easier to produce toxins and pathogens that can be exploited for biological weapons purposes,” Ms. Rozman Kendler said. “By adopting these controls, requiring a license to the PRC will help ensure that our biotechnology exports are not used for malign purposes.”
China and the treaty
The biodefense report cited the State Department compliance survey which suggested China is not complying with its treaty obligations regarding germ weapons, based on work being carried out at Chinese military medical facilities.
China has disclosed plans for becoming a global leader in technologies such as genetic engineering, precision medicine and brain sciences. “These Chinese publications have called biology a new domain of war,” the report said.
In Beijing, China reacted by saying it was the United States that was actively seeking to develop new biological weapons.
“When it comes to biosecurity threats, the U.S. is the most active and suspected country in conducting bio-military activities,” Foreign Minister spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters, suggesting the United States is secretly building biological warfare capabilities in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).
The Chinese accusation reflects the findings of the State Department’s annual arms control compliance report that said China continued to engage in biological activities with potential germ weapons applications that raise concerns about violation of the BWC.
The report, made public in April, said China has “reportedly weaponized ricin, botulinum toxins, and the causative agents of anthrax, cholera, plague, and tularemia.”
Chinese military medical institutions also are working on potent toxins with military applications. Beijing also has failed to confirm that its offensive biological weapons programs that were operating at least until the 1980s were eliminated, as required by the convention.
U.S. intelligence agencies also have gathered information indicating the Chinese military is developing biological weapons designed to attack specific ethnic groups, The Washington Times reported in May 2020.
“We are looking at potential biological experiments on ethnic minorities,” one senior U.S. official with access to intelligence said at the time.
A Chinese general also stated in a book published in 2017 that advances in biotechnology made “specific ethnic genetic attacks” more likely in a future conflict.
Mr. Wang, the Chinese spokesman, said U.S. accusations of Chinese biowarfare efforts were a pretext for “containing or suppressing” Beijing.
“The U.S.’s false narratives and moves to stoke confrontation seriously jeopardize the biosecurity governance system with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) as the cornerstone and the global response to biosecurity risks and challenges,” Mr. Wang said.