Editor’s Note: Paul Cruickshank, CNN terrorism analyst, is the editor in chief of CTC Sentinel, the flagship publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As the world braces for a possible second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is also growing concern in the counterterrorism, scientific and global public health communities over the potential future threat posed by bio-engineered pathogens.
A few weeks ago, scientists at the US 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 affecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb.”
One scenario prompting particular concern is a contagious virus created or modified by a terrorist group or other bad actor that is then deliberately unleashed into the general population, potentially causing even more death and disruption around the world than Covid-19. A bioterror attack involving a pathogen with a high death rate “is kind of the nightmare scenario” Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in April.
For the last five years I have worked as editor-in-chief of CTC Sentinel, a monthly, independent publication of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point that leverages its network of scholars and practitioners to understand and confront contemporary terror threats. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rising level of concern about the bioterror threat among some of the best and brightest minds should be a Category-5 wake up call for all of us.
Juan Zarate, who served as Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism from 2005 to 2009, recently noted in a CTC roundtable that I co-moderated that “the severity and extreme disruption of a novel coronavirus will likely spur the imagination of the most creative and dangerous groups and individuals to reconsider bioterrorist attacks.”
What is especially sobering is that the pandemic has exposed the current weak capability of public health systems in even highly developed countries like the United States to respond to a potential future bioterror attack involving a deadly virus.
In the past two decades there have been huge advances in the ability of scientists to engineer biological systems, a field known as synthetic biology (sometimes shortened to SynBio). While this is a very welcome development when it comes to improving human health, it has also led to growing concern over malevolent use.
Unlike in the nuclear field, where access to key know-how and materials is limited to a small number of highly vetted scientists and in which massive resources are needed to surmount the engineering hurdles to weaponization, in the synthetic biology field access has significantly widened around the world to knowledge, tools, and materials that could be used to create bioweapons. These dynamics led scientists at the United States Military Academy at West Point to sound the alarm over the potential future bioterror threat posed by synthetic biology.
Writing in the August issue of CTC Sentinel, J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O’Donovan, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Washington, Major Stephen Hummel, and Colonel F. John Burpo, who all serve at, or are affiliated with, the Department of Chemistry and Life Science at the United States Military Academy, warn that the economic and social impact of Covid-19 “has increased the chance that terrorist organizations will attempt to use biological agents to asymmetrically attack the United States and its allies.”
Counterterrorism analysts share their concerns. Audrey Kurth Cronin, the author of the recent book “Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists,” noted in the CTC roundtable that “with the ability to alter DNA through easily accessible tools like CRISPR/Cas9, individuals can change known bacterial or viral pathogens to make them more dangerous. Far more people have access to the means to do this, much more rapidly than ever before.”
In late 2019, Russell Travers, then-acting director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, stated that the potential terrorist use of biological weapons has “moved from a low probability eventuality to something that is considered much more likely.”
In the last two decades scientists seeking to better understand and protect against the threat posed by viruses have managed to synthesize the entire poliovirus genome, reconstruct the 1918 pandemic flu virus, and develop a novel strain of the H5N1 avian flu virus which could be transmitted more easily among mammals.
While these breakthroughs were the result of US government funded efforts in state-of-the art laboratories, the West Point scientists say that that as the technology improves, the level of funding, education and skills necessary to engineer biological agents decreases – making it easier for non-state actors to develop and deploy them as weapons.
They note how in 2016, “a small Canadian research group was successful in constructing infectious horsepox virus [a genetically distinct relative of smallpox] directly from genetic information obtained solely from a public database for the relatively modest sum of $100,000.”
The Canadian team was working to improve public health, but the concern is that not all such undertakings in the future will be well-intentioned. Nor do would-be bioterrorists have to be rogue professional scientists. “As technology increases and spreads, those with a simple home laboratory system may be able to manipulate bacterial and viral genes without expert training or years of experience,” write the West Point scientists. The scientists call for the threat posed by engineered pathogens to be “anticipated and planned for at all levels of government.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, whose memoir “Chemical Warrior” has just been published, told me that action by the international community is urgently needed and overdue “if we are to prevent the potential Armageddon of an engineered highly virulent toxic pathogen.”
(By way of comparison, he said: “Covid-19, a not very virulent but highly transmissible pathogen has brought the world to its knees, and is a huge neon advert to every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist who would do us harm.”)
Noting “the huge increase in Level 4 containment laboratories in all parts of the globe, where the most deadly pathogens are stored,” he is especially worried harmful biological materials could be stolen, spirited away by a rogue insider or accidentally be released.
Another urgent call for action comes from General Ret. Michael Nagata, who until last year was the strategy director at the US National Counterterrorism Center. “The US counterterrorism community has long held that the use of a biological agent of some kind for a major terrorist attack is not a matter of if, but when,” General Nagata told the CTC roundtable. “The likelihood of a future terrorist using a highly potent, clandestinely produced, difficult to detect/identify/track, easily transportable and dispersible, and quite lethal biological weapon is rising significantly.”
Nagata stated, “we should confront the question of whether the US counterterrorism community, our policymakers, congressional representatives, and the American people are informed and aware enough of the trajectory we are now on? I believe the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ During my career as a CT operational practitioner, all the way through my final years as the senior CT strategist at NCTC, the amount of energy, focus, and resourcing devoted to bioterrorism is a small fraction of what is still given today to more conventional threats.”
Nagata added: “Like all things in life, we have choices to make about how prepared we wish to be. The question is, will we make them today before a disaster happens or be forced by catastrophe to make them tomorrow?”
Much of the work necessary to counter the bioterror threat from engineered viruses will also translate into greater preparedness for the next naturally occurring pandemic. Biosecurity should be the number one national security and public health priority for whoever resides in the White House during the next four years. The time for action is now.