As DOD steps up response to bioweapon threat, China plays complicated role in biosecurity
A new biodefense council looks to get ahead of the next pandemic.
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. But biological defense isn’t as clear or straightforward as the type of security that’s bought with aircraft carriers and missiles.
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 industrial base faces significant challenges similar to other critical sectors (e.g., semiconductors). For example, the bulk of production, especially for key precursor materials, has moved overseas (especially to China). Subsequently, in many cases, domestic production has dwindled to a single supplier,” the review reads.
The review suggests the United States use grants and other financial incentives to lure medical equipment and supply manufacturing away from China and back to the United States, and possibly use the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, to better address money that goes to China and make sure U.S. intellectual property relevant to bioweapons isn’t going to China.
But unlike in many other domains, the United States can’t simply isolate China when it comes to 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. But China is also making partnerships more and more difficult, said Richard Johnson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and countering weapons of mass destruction policy.
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 is limited in the messaging it can do to counter misinformation and confusion about biosecurity threats, even if it is bound to take a lead on biological response to pandemics, because it’s one of the only parts of government both parties can agree to 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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