The Defense Department is launching a new bio defense council and seeking $812 million to better prepare for future biological emergencies and deter countries like China from pursuing potentially deadly biological weapons. It’s not as simple or as straightforward to buy security with missiles and aircraft carriers.
Government officials announcing the new council Wednesday at a CSIS event said the world–especially the United States–has to try to work with China on emerging biological threats, even as the Pentagon focuses on deterring the nation from conflict.
The Defense Department’s Biodefense Posture Review, released this week, highlights several factors that could slow the United States’s response to the next big biological disaster. It calls for increased monitoring of biological threats as they emerge, better coordination within the Defense Department on defense, and improving the domestic supply of bio-defense material, which can include masks and fabrics, chemicals for medicines, or even the electronic components that go into pieces of medical equipment.
“DOD’s biodefense industry faces similar challenges as other sectors of critical importance (e.g. semiconductors). The majority of the production has been moved to other countries (in particular, China). The review states that domestic production in some cases has been reduced to just one supplier.
The report suggests that the United States should use financial incentives and grants to lure manufacturing of medical supplies and equipment away from China, back to the United States. It also recommends using the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to address the money going to China, as well as to ensure U.S. Intellectual Property relevant to bioweapons does not go to China.
Unlike in other areas, however, it is not possible for the United States to isolate China from biological security.
“China’s larger environment is one where there’s lots of active research partnerships between American universities, American industry, and others that are vitally important in the life sciences” J. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at CSIS and director of its Global Health Policy Center, said Thursday. “What becomes of them? And also, what about our bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and China on these critical strategic threats from future pandemics? Is that dialogue to be restored and created? Is there space for that in the midst of this competition?”
In fact, in 2022 China surpassed the U.S. as the leading publisher of academic research in the biosciences, according to a June analysis from Nature.
The heated–and sometimes ill-informed–controversy over the idea of NIH funding for gain-of-function research (research into how deadly pathogens adapt to exist in warm-blooded animals like bats, birds, and humans) illustrates clearly the political dangers of trying to engage with China on joint biological research initiatives. Richard Johnson, the deputy assistant secretary for policy on nuclear weapons and countering mass destruction, told CSIS that China makes partnerships harder.
Johnson told the CSIS audience the Biden administration has made efforts to reach out to the Chinese government to coordinate responses to biological threats.
“Certainly we continue to be interested in having a dialogue with Beijing on these issues and making sure that we understand where we’re coming from. Unfortunately, the response that we’ve gotten from the PRC to the release of the final posture review was basically an influx of disinformation and misinformation about what the United States is doing on bio issues,” he said.
Therein lies one of the key weaknesses in U.S. response to biological threats, as revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic: disinformation about viruses, both from domestic sources and from state actors like China, spreads far faster than the pathogens themselves.
“Chinese publications have called biology a new domain of war. The PRC and Russia have also proven adept at manipulating the information space to inhibit attribution, to reduce trust and confidence in countermeasure effectiveness, and potentially to slow decision-making following deliberate use,” the review reads.
But, the Defense Department has limited options to combat misinformation about biosecurity, despite the fact that it must take the lead in biological responses to pandemics. This is because the Department of Defense is the only part of the government which both sides can fund. As the review states: “Substantial DoD resources have been used to support civil authorities and international partners because of insufficient capability elsewhere, and emphasizes the need to anchor our strategy in an holistic response that includes other U.S. government departments and agencies and international allies and partners; minimizes bureaucratic challenges to information sharing, and increases interoperability.”
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