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COVID-19 has shown U.S., U.K. are vulnerable to biological terrorism, experts say

The coronavirus raises questions about the West's ability to cope with pandemics and whether labs are secure. What could terrorists do with a pathogen?
Empress EMS Capt. AJ Briones at an emergency scene as medics load a patient into an ambulance on April 22, 2020 in Yonkers, N.Y.
Medics load a patient into an ambulance on April 22, 2020 in Yonkers, N.Y.John Moore / Getty Images file

LONDON — The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a structural vulnerability to biological attacks in the U.S. and Europe that requires urgent government action, multiple current and former national security and public health officials told NBC News.

Former officials in the U.S. and the U.K. warn that the devastating impact of the coronavirus on health care infrastructures and economies may act as a "neon light" for terrorist groups looking to unleash pathogens on Western nations.

The pandemic has shown that the West has trouble testing, tracking and treating a pandemic or sustaining a supply of protective equipment for health care workers. It has also raised questions about the security of pathogen research labs worldwide.

"Many of the very worst-case characteristics of an intentional event are also being seen in this naturally occurring pandemic," said Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Kadlec, a retired Air Force colonel and surgeon who has spent much of the past two decades focused on biodefense policy and legislation inside the White House, the Defense Department and the Senate, helped the FBI with its investigation into the 2001 "Amerithrax" attacks. The perpetrator in the attacks, which killed five people and infected 17 others, used anthrax from a government lab. "We've come a long way in 20 years, and yet there is so much more that needs to be done," he said.

Are laboratories secure?

The Trump administration's repeated assertion that the virus may have escaped from a Chinese laboratory has placed the security measures at such facilities worldwide under a microscope.

Over the past century, only a couple of dozen countries have developed biological weapons programs. But security experts expressed concern about "dual use" laboratories — where scientists examine pathogens for research purposes and to develop vaccines.

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Legislation signed by President Barack Obama obliged the incoming Trump administration to develop a national biodefense strategy, which was published in September 2018. It sought to centralize a federal response team to handle naturally occurring, accidental and deliberate biological threats and to build on previous experiences, including the 2001 anthrax attacks, a 2009 influenza pandemic, the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the more recent fallout from the Zika virus.

But it also highlighted the dangers of storing lethal pathogens in laboratories that might lack "appropriate biosecurity measures," which would mean that "actors who wish to do harm" could divert them. The number of these "biosafety level 4" labs, where scientists research easily transmitted pathogens, has multiplied rapidly in recent years. And to many security experts, the locations of some facilities and their insufficient safeguards represent a substantial threat.

"You've got to start thinking about the mind of the terrorist or the criminal," said Chris Phillips, the former head of the British government's National Counter Terrorism Security Office, a police unit housed inside the country's domestic intelligence agency, MI5, with responsibility for safeguarding the facilities in the U.K.

"They do take security seriously," Phillips said. But referring to the damage COVID-19 has wrought, he added, "This has just shown you can never be secure enough." During his work at the terrorism office, he visited many of the U.K.'s university-operated or privately administered laboratories, and he said he was most troubled by the threat that an insider could walk out the door with a bioweapon. "If you were a hardened terrorist and had worked in a lab for years, you would know how to do it," he said.

When it comes to the impact of using a biological weapon, despite the vast death toll from the current pandemic, "the psychological damage is 100 times worse than the physical damage," said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commander of the U.K.'s joint chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear regiment, or CBRN, as well as NATO's CBRN battalion. He has recently worked closely with chemical attack victims in Syria and investigated an apparent Islamic State plot to introduce a form of plague into a Syrian refugee camp.

"The fact that this has created such a toxic shock around the world will be a neon advertisement to these people," he said.

New, affordable biotechnology means new risks

"We are also trying to make sure that this doesn't become a weapon of the future," the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said of the potential for enemies to repurpose the coronavirus. "We need to deter and we need to be ready to defend, to save people's lives if there is such an attack," she told NBC News.

Multiple public health and security experts have expressed fears about new forms of biotechnology that allow a bacterium or a virus to be genetically sequenced, altered or weaponized more affordably and more rapidly.

Cutting-edge gene-editing technologies, which allow scientists and eager amateurs alike to tweak and reconstitute viruses at a microscopic level, have become widespread in recent years, and the industry remains poorly regulated in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"It should give us pause," said Dr. Alexander Garza, who oversaw biodefense efforts when he ran the Office of Health Affairs as the Department of Homeland Security's chief medical officer from 2009 to 2013.

"If this could happen in nature with a mutation of an RNA virus," he said, referring to the coronavirus, "there is potential, especially with ongoing genetic technology and all of these other things that are getting closer and closer every day, to where it will become possible to genetically modify the virus to make it more virulent and use that as a potential weapon."

The technology, including a type of gene editing known as CRISPR, provides fresh context for changing assumptions about what could be used as a biological weapon — changes that have been accelerated by COVID-19, according to Richard Pilch, who heads the biological weapons program at the Middlebury Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the world's largest nongovernmental non-proliferation research and education organization.

When it comes to budget dollars, however, Pilch cautioned against overemphasizing the possibility of attacks. "The right mix is to invest in strategies that get us both biodefense preparedness but, more importantly, broad global health preparedness to address things like COVID-19."

He said the key to preventing a natural outbreak is to end the kind of behavior or activities that lead to pathogen spillover from animals to humans, as Chinese authorities say occurred in Wuhan's wet market. But he insisted that avoiding deliberate attacks calls for multilateral engagement and deterrence efforts on the global stage.

Existing detection systems 'insufficient'

The first line of defense against such pathogens, whether naturally occurring or tweaked in labs, is inadequate, according to experts.

Dr. Asha George, a public health specialist who heads up the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, said that the threat of a biological event continues to rise and that she remains worried about opponents who might wish to emulate the kind of damage currently felt by the U.S. and many of its allies.

"Now would be the time, or soon would be the time, because we're already drawing down on those resources that we would use to respond," said George, who highlighted the fragility of global supply chains for medical goods and health care infrastructures — staffing levels and hospital bed capacity — which remain under significant strain with COVID-19 admissions still so high.

George testified to Congress in October that the U.S. was unprepared for bioterrorism and biological warfare and that efforts to improve detection technology were "insufficient" and moving in the wrong direction. An environmental detection system known as BioWatch, developed after the 2001 anthrax attacks and overseen since then by the Department of Homeland Security, heavily relies on municipal and state authorities to test environmental samples for intentionally released airborne pathogens before passing on laboratory results to an integrated national registry.

Multiple experts told NBC News that the system has long been in need of a major upgrade and fails to provide the kind of detailed, real-time geographic information about infection spread that would be useful to prevent viral pandemics, intentional or otherwise. "That system is still not adequate to meet the threats that we are facing today," George said. "We need that early warning. We don't have it right now."

Image: Robert Kadlec
Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary Robert Kadlec speaks at a coronavirus task force news conference in Washington on March 9, 2020.Michael Brochstein / Barcroft Media via Getty Images file

What else needs improvement?

To defend against a biological attack, Kadlec said, the U.S. needs to increase its testing capacity and improve the pipelines for treatment and vaccine production under a centralized national umbrella. To guard against future threats, he said, this "system of systems" must also encompass improved health surveillance of the population, as well as more effective detection techniques for viruses and bacteria, while public health authorities across the various levels of local, state and federal government must step up their readiness.

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Juan Zarate, who was deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said U.S. authorities must domestically rethink the communication between various government agencies and the private sector so the response to a biological event can be more consistent, rapid and aggressive.

COVID-19 has "brought home not only the realities of our vulnerabilities but the potential risk of this kind of a pandemic in man-made context, genetically modified, that is targeted in ways that are intended to undermine, attack our systems and our health," said Zarate, an NBC News contributor who oversaw the creation of infrastructure to combat terrorism financing in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Our homeland security posture and even our counterterrorism approach will be fundamentally altered by this crisis."