Scientists Warn Against Delays in Preparing for Bioterrorist Attacks
WASHINGTON — Biological scientists told a congressional panel Wednesday that anyone who thinks the COVID-19 pandemic is bad hasn’t seen anything yet, as bioterrorism becomes an increasing threat.
Gene sequencing technology that falls into the wrong hands could allow bioterrorists to manufacture even more deadly viruses, they said.
“There is no need to hijack an airliner when you can simply release a weaponized virus in an airport terminal,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio. “The death toll from the resulting pandemic could be in the millions.”
As he spoke during the hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States was approaching 800,000 and nearly 5.3 million worldwide.
He described the pandemic as a wake-up call to the possible devastation that commercially-available technology could wreak on unprepared populations.
“They can even create synthetic viruses from scratch,” Chabot said about bioterrorists.
He named the biological warfare programs operated by Russia and North Korea as potential culprits. In addition, U.S. adversaries in the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, were becoming more technologically sophisticated, he said.
Ami Bera, D-Calif., the subcommittee chairman, said, “As the pandemic demonstrates, we must not wait for a crisis.”
How to prepare for the next pandemic and at what cost consumed most of the discussion during the congressional hearing.
Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a review of U.S. preparedness for bioterrorism that is expected to result in an array of new proposals for Congress.
In addition, the nonprofit Council on Strategic Risks is set to release a handbook this month that recommends an aggressive $200 billion, 10-year program to defend against biological threats. The council is a public policy foundation that focuses on security.
“Deterrence is at the heart of this proposal,” said Andy Weber, senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks.
Its two-part plan suggests investing in technologies that can detect viruses and bacteria quickly. It also recommends a global health program for a rapid response, such as by developing vaccines or medicines tailored to specific threats.
“It is within our reach to take biological threats off the table,” Weber said.
Common proposals call for installing detection technology in transportation hubs, water supplies and food processing centers.
A primary security concern mentioned during the congressional hearing was CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is a rapidly advancing technology that can be used to edit genes.
By searching for a specific bit of DNA inside a cell, scientists can alter it to make more effective vaccines and medicines. In the wrong hands, the alterations could create gene mutations, either accidentally or by design.
The result could be the emergence of new and deadlier viruses.
Education about CRISPR starts as early as high school biology classes.
The subcommittee met on the same day biological researchers released a report that said every country in the world, including the United States, is unprepared for another pandemic. The report was prepared by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit global security group, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The report recommended that national governments fund health security in their annual budgets. It also suggested public-private joint ventures to guard against epidemics.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security, said a delayed response would be too late to effectively counter new epidemics.
“Pathogens no longer travel at the speed of a steamship, they travel at the speed of a jet,” Adalja told the lawmakers.
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