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Old 03-14-2019, 02:43 PM
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Arrow The Threat Of Biological Warfare Is Increasing, And The U.S. Isn't Ready

The Threat Of Biological Warfare Is Increasing, And The U.S. Isn't Ready
By: Loren Thompson / Washington

During the Cold War, the big threats to national security changed little from year to year. Because threats were predictable, the U.S. government was able to mount a focused, effective response that prevented World War Three.

Today, threats are harder to anticipate. From the use of jetliners in the 9-11 attacks to the appearance of improvised explosive devices in Iraq to the growing use of drones by our enemies to the proliferation of cyber threats, policymakers are continuously being confronted by unexpected challenges.

The military has a catchall term for such dangers. It calls them "asymmetric threats," meaning threats that attack us where we are least prepared. It is nearly impossible to mount a focused, effective response because the threats and their perpetrators are too diverse. If you can imagine something bad, it's probably going to happen. We just don't know when or where.

Which brings me to the subject of biowar -- the use of microbes to attack target populations. This is not a new idea. Europeans gave Native Americans blankets tainted with smallpox during the early colonial period, knowing their lack of resistance to the disease would wipe out whole tribes. What is new today is that virulent pathogens -- microorganisms that spread disease -- can be readily spawned in laboratories.

How readily? Using a gene editing process called CRISPR, a biologist in Pakistan or North Korea can fashion a microbe that mimics the transmissibility and lethality of smallpox with technology ordered online for less than $200. There is virtually no regulation of such transactions. To quote a threat assessment provided to Congress on March 6 by the Director of National Intelligence,

Stating: Biological and chemical materials and technologies -- almost always dual-use -- move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them for legitimate and illegitimate purposes. Information about the latest discoveries in the life sciences also diffuses rapidly around the globe, widening the accessibility of knowledge and tools for beneficial purposes and for potentially nefarious applications.

The Trump administration's National Security Strategy released in December warns that biological threats to the U.S. homeland are growing. And yet even as the report was being written, the White House budget office was proposing to cut off funding to the government's only biodefense analysis and countermeasures center at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

So a Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense got it right in 2016 when it warned that "our nation remains woefully under-prepared for dangerous biological incidents." But you didn't need a government commission to know that. All you need to do is look at our uncertain response to recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika to see how unready we are.

Thus, biowar could be the next big asymmetric threat. And unlike in the case of any other methods of mass murder that our enemies might embrace, the destructive effects of releasing engineered pathogens don't necessarily dissipate with time. They may actually grow worse as the microbes mutate.

For a thoughtful guide to what life might be like in the coming era of biowar, you probably can't do better than John Barry's The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2004). The book exhaustively describes how researchers were frustrated in seeking to counter a virulent strain of flu that originated in Haskell County, Kansas in early 1918 and then spread around the world -- infecting about a third of all the people on the planet. 10-20% of those infected died.

Because of peculiarities in the way the so-called Spanish flu virus mutated, it tended to kill people with the strongest immune systems rather than the weakest -- meaning those in the prime of life. It was especially virulent in striking down members of the military, whose mobilization for participation in the European war greatly facilitated the disease's spread. The Spanish flu killed more U.S. warfighters than would be lost in the Vietnam War.

That statistic points to the reason why actors other than nihilistic terrorists might turn to the use of engineered pathogens to wreak havoc among an enemy's military forces. Skillfully engineered, a microbe can spread rapidly among target populations critical to a war effort. Within months after the first flu outbreak at Fort Reilly, Kansas, two-thirds of the Army's major domestic bases were experiencing mass infections. 20-40% of workers were absent from weapons plants.

The effects were not confined to America; the flu outbreak among the ranks of German soldiers was so severe that it impeded efforts to mount the last big offensive of the war on the Western Front. But the effects in America were unprecedented. Schools closed. Streets were empty. People who would normally come to the aid of stricken neighbors stayed behind closed doors for fear of being infected. During one week in October of 1918, 4,597 people in Philadelphia alone died of the flu and its complications.

According to author John Barry, the Spanish flu killed more people around the world in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed over the course of a century. Efforts to find a vaccine against it were frustrated for years -- so long, in fact, that the pandemic burned itself out rather than being defeated by human intervention.

But why, you might ask, would any rational adversary embrace such an indiscriminate form of warfare today, even if it could fashion pathogens of similar (or greater) virulence? The answer is twofold. First, some of the enemies we face today are not "rational" in the sense that term is used in the West. They believe they serve a higher purpose. Think of ISIS. But second, when an aggressor nation has the tools to synthesize unique microorganisms, it can also engineer vaccines that confer immunity on its own population.

So the resulting pandemic -- whether it be some super-powerful form of influenza or a new strain of smallpox or botulism reworked -- might only spread indiscriminately among targeted populations. That is the point to which recent advances in the life sciences have delivered us today. We are teetering on the edge of a biological abyss, oblivious to the dangers that lie ahead. Our failure to prepare in even the most rudimentary ways is an invitation to the worst "asymmetric" threat that America is ever likely to face.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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