If the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, monkeypox and Russian invasion of Ukraine have shown the world anything, it’s that the traditional order of the post-WWII period is being tested.
Both the ongoing health crises and the land war again in Europe, once considered unthinkable, are now reality. And as governments grapple with these events and their aftermath, they must consider how to prepare for what could be next.
The use of bioweapons, either by state or non-state actors, should be high on the list. It’s now clear that communicable viruses cannot be contained to one country and that governments need to be making meaningful investments now to prepare for unleashed outbreaks.
The good news is, the tools needed to test, trace and treat both natural and intentional viral outbreaks are similar. But as future bio-attacks may be coordinated with financial, cyber or kinetic actions, the need for the military to sustain robust and dedicated capabilities to counter biothreats is paramount.
Here are three ways the response to potential biothreats can be strengthened:
Support more research for vaccines and treatments
While it is difficult to predict the exact contagion that might be used in a future bioterrorism attack, we know what highly infectious pathogens have the potential for use in a bioterrorism event, such as Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Yersinia pestis (plague).
Another such pathogen is the bacteria Francisella tularensis, or tularemia. As it is 1000x more infectious than anthrax, the aerosolized form of tularemia is understood to have a high potential for use in a bioterror attack. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Appili Therapeutics and the Life Sciences Research Center at the United States Air Force Academy entered into a public-private partnership to accelerate product development on a vaccine to protect against this threat, and initiatives like this should be more common.
The Biden Administration’s pledge of $81.7 billion in its FY 2023 budget to better prepare for future pandemics and biological threats is a critical step in the right direction. Similar commitments from global partners are needed to ensure an infrastructure is available to counter future biothreats.
Invest in more threat-reduction technologies
Governments may not know what the next biothreat will look like or where it will come from, but they can make strides in identifying and addressing weak spots and solidifying programs to counter these threats.
Central to this effort is increasing the capability to surveil and predict. This can be accomplished by establishing a robust, agile, and geographically agnostic Public Health surveillance network.
A great example is the Department of Defense, Defense Health Agency, LSRC and Biobot Analytics partnering to detect and monitor SARS-CoV2 across the Air Force Academy. This ongoing surveillance is providing leadership with pivotal and timely medical data to improve force readiness and should serve as a model for other biothreats.
Similarly, advanced ventilation systems that can help us detect and respond to an attack are needed. There is also an urgent need to invest in drone and other remote-sensing technologies that can conduct air monitoring and automated biological agent detection.
Event venues, transportation hubs and other high-volume areas should be prioritized for deployment of these counter-biothreat systems and capabilities.
Finally, while technological solutions are important, a truly effective threat response will require proficient emergency teams and response personnel. The mechanisms for system development and deployment must be established, along with training programs to ensure key personnel develop and maintain proficiency to decisively counter threats when, or ideally before, they occur.
Lean into key learnings from the coronavirus pandemic
COVID-19 has taught us a great deal about leading through a pandemic, especially the importance of clear and direct communication. Unfortunately, approaches to addressing the health crisis became politicized and trust in our long-standing health institutions fell. It will take years to rebuild this trust, but in the face of a silent and hard to trace threat, time is not on our side. We must now look hard at how this happened and begin to actively earn and restore mutual respect and trust across our society and national institutions.
We are a resilient, forward-thinking people. But as we move closer to a new sense of normal, we are still not as prepared as we need to be. We must turn lessons learned into concrete actions and keep our eye on what remains to be done so we can make our emerging biothreat response capabilities stronger. In doing so, we may deter the next threat altogether.
Armand Balboni, MD, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Biology and Director of the Life Sciences Research Center (LSRC) at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. He was previously the CEO of Appili Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company focused on drug development for infectious diseases.
Lt. Col. Odaro Huckstep, DPhil, MSc, is an Assistant Professor of Biology and director of operations and research at the United States Air Force Academy.
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