The Justice Department building on a foggy morning in Washington, DC.

Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

This week, the Justice Department took an aggressive step toward holding individuals who knowingly spread the coronavirus accountable for their actions. The new guidance could serve as a powerful deterrent to those contemplating weaponizing the virus in the weeks ahead.

In an official memo, the Justice Department indicates that those who intentionally spread Covid-19 could be charged on terrorism-related charges, because the virus “appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent.’” And the charges, in some cases, could lead to life imprisonment.

 Sam Vinograd

Intent is the key differentiator in this case – and law enforcement would have to prove the intentional spread of the virus in order to indict individuals on terrorism-related charges.

Keep in mind that bioweapon attacks aren’t just the plot lines in episodes of “The Americans” or “Homeland” – they are a real threat facing the actual homeland today, and the Justice Department’s guidance could not come soon enough. The FBI has already warned police agencies in an alert, for example, that racist extremist groups, including white supremacist groups, are encouraging their members who get Covid-19 to spread the disease to Jewish people and members of law enforcement.

Notably, state and local authorities have already used terrorism-related laws to address coronavirus. The New Jersey attorney general’s office has charged a man who allegedly coughed on another individual and then said he had coronavirus for making terrorist threats and other related crimes.

And a man in Missouri has been charged by the prosecuting attorney’s office with a terrorist threat in the second degree after posting a video of himself, in which he stares into the camera and asks, “Who’s scared of coronavirus?” before proceeding to lick several deodorant sticks at a Walmart. (NBC reached out to the defendant’s attorney, who claimed his client made that video before the World Health Organization declared the global pandemic and that “public conduct that was immature on March 10 looks completely differently through the lens of today.”)

In short, this memo is an important step in holding anyone accountable for intentionally spreading the virus and in deterring anyone who is thinking about using Covid-19 as a weapon. And this is a very real, very live threat, including for US officials. Intentionally exposing key US officials – in any branch of the government – could seriously impact the functioning of the country.

Unfortunately, this crisis has underscored just how catastrophic Covid-19 can be. Indicating that weaponizing it could result in terrorism-related charges will hopefully play a role in dissuading anyone with this in mind.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the threat of bioterrorism is nothing new. US government officials have long warned about biological weapons attacks against us, and they have stockpiled their own defensive biological weapons for decades.

Weeks after 9/11, in the midst of the anthrax scare, the FBI warned that the “Bioterrorism threat has risen to a new level.” Biowatch, a federal program established in 2003 to “provide early warning of a bioterrorist attack in more than 30 major metropolitan areas across the country,” is an important part of our counterterrorism apparatus. And, in its last public worldwide threat assessment, the DNI warned that “the threat from biological weapons has also become more diverse” and noted the “potential for adversaries to adopt novel biological warfare agents.”

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    These are just a few examples of how various parts of the US government – including members of the intelligence community, law enforcement, policymakers and more – have tried to organize to confront bioterrorism, albeit with mixed performance reviews. But, bottom line: A biological weapons attack is not the stuff of science fiction, and part of addressing this threat is constructing a framework for indicting and prosecuting those who use bioweapons to hurt Americans.

    While the administration works to address coronavirus, they also need to hold those who may have played a role in allowing it to spread – by spreading disinformation about its origin, scale and scope, for example – accountable. And the Justice Department’s memo is a good step in that direction.