Can the U.S. make bioweapons obsolete?

By Paul Rhien

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sandia experts help set vision to reach ambitious goal

biothreat workshop report cover
ELIMINATING BIOTHREATS — Making Bioweapons Obsolete: A Summary of Workshop Discussions, released by Sandia and the Council on Strategic Risks, addresses recommendations for significantly reducing and ultimately eliminating biothreats. (Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

As the threats posed by bioterrorism and naturally occurring infectious disease grow and evolve in the modern era, there is a rising potential for broad negative impacts on human health, economic stability and global security. To protect the nation from these dangers, Sandia has partnered with the Council on Strategic Risks to take on the ambitious goal of making bioweapons obsolete.

In August 2019, Sandia hosted Making Bioweapons Obsolete, the first in a planned series of workshops designed to bring together government, national laboratories, academia, industry, policy and entrepreneur communities to address the challenges of mitigating and eliminating the risks of bioweapons.

Sandia and the CSR recently released a report, Making Bioweapons Obsolete: A Summary of Workshop Discussions, outlining the discussions and recommendations that came out of the first workshop. The report captures the strategic vision the working group laid out to achieve its ambitious goal.

Anup Singh, Sandia director of biological and engineering sciences, said addressing the rising threats bioweapons present across the U.S. and around the world will require using strategy, technological advances, policy and other tools.

“This is an extremely interesting time in biotechnology, with the revolutionary advances in genome editing, synthetic biology and convergent technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics,” Anup said. “Academia and the private sector are driving a variety of biotechnology innovations, and it is imperative that we engage them in solving the problem together with the traditional national security partners.”

Drawing on the cross-discipline expertise of the working group, organizers aim to better understand the threat and how technology can both increase and mitigate the risk. The report focuses on identifying solutions that offer the biggest return and influencing national leadership to engage with academia and industry and provide attention and resources to the issue.

Biothreat moonshot

“We need a moonshot-level, inspirational goal regarding biological threats,” said Andy Weber, CSR senior fellow. “When we convene top experts to explore the concept of making bioweapons obsolete, we are usually met with great enthusiasm and a feeling that the United States can really achieve this vision.

“Indeed, it is largely an expansion on the work the U.S. government has accomplished to date in addressing smallpox threats to America with an extensive vaccine stockpiling system and its development of vaccines for viruses such as Ebola.”

Covering a wide range of considerations that must be addressed, the report:

  • Provides insights on key technological trends.
  • Raises questions about the data and information access required to rapidly characterize and respond to biological attacks and outbreaks.
  • Explores in-depth market and supply-chain dynamics.
  • Points to significant U.S. government capacities that can be used and expanded, including the country’s vast testing and evaluation infrastructure.
  • Highlights the need for academic and private-sector experts to coordinate outreach and education for policymakers.
  • Drives home the critical importance of U.S. leadership.
biothreat workshop attendees
BUSTING BIOWEAPONS — Leaders from government, national laboratories, academia, industry, policy and entrepreneur communities participated in Making Bioweapons Obsolete, the first in a series of workshops planned by Sandia and the Council on Strategic Risks.

Sandia Associate Labs Director for Integrated Security Solutions Andy McIlroy said the workshop is the beginning of an important conversation in tackling the ambitious issue of eliminating or significantly reducing biothreats.

“With increased commitment, time, resources and leadership, we can make further strides in meeting this bold target,” he said. “I hope that we can continue this discussion to create a united, national vision that meets the urgency of the moment.”

Future workshops will continue the wide-ranging discussion focused on engaging in a national dialogue and promoting better public-private collaboration on this grand mission. Sessions will focus on man-made threats from weapons of mass destruction, as well as the risks posed by advances in technology.

The CSR is a nonprofit, nonpartisan security policy institute devoted to anticipating, analyzing and addressing core systemic risks to security in the 21st century, with special examination of the ways in which these risks intersect and exacerbate one another. Visit the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons to learn more about the CSR’s program to make bioweapons obsolete.