WASHINGTON — In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Defense Department should dramatically increase its funding for biological defense initiatives in order to deter other nations from seeking to exploit America’s perceived vulnerability to a medical crisis according to a new report from the Council on Strategic Risks.
The Pentagon’s hub for biological defense is the Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP), which is charged with the development of medicines and technologies to defense the military from biological threats. CBDP has played a significant role in creating solutions for anthrax and Ebola, among other dangers. Funding for the agency peaked in 2006 at $2.2 billion, but has now dropped to less than $1.4 billion.
The report calls for doubling the agency’s funding “to at least $2 billion in the next year,” followed by increasing it to a range of $6.5 billion to $7 billion annually in the coming years.
That $7 billion figure would be less than 1 percent of the total defense spending expected to be included in President Joe Biden’s FY22 budget request, but still represents sizeable dollars that would need to be taken from other programs at a time that the department is already struggling to find savings.
Still, the authors of the report, including Council CEO Christine Parthemore, argue the investment is worth it. Speaking to Defense News, she noted that COVID-19 managed to disrupt the commander in chief, the joint chiefs of staff, thousands of military personnel and an aircraft carrier; it doesn’t take much to imagine the damage a biological agent used in a targeted way could do.
“The imperative to work in this area seems pretty clear,” Parthemore said. “This is small dollars for big DoD, and those dollars would be leveraging investments made over decades.”
Key investment areas should include “nucleic-acid based therapeutics, a new approach that relies on gene encoding like the highest efficacy COVID-19 vaccines, and field-and-clinic deployable early-detection technology that can identify any pathogen by reading its genetic material,” per the authors, who also call for expanding international cooperation on biodefense issues and launching annual drills for rapid-response capabilities to combat future outbreaks.
Parthemore and her team view the investment as part of by all of government to rethink how to deal with pandemic-like situations in the future, but she said DoD’s role is particularly important as a potential deterrent.
An underlying concern laid out by the authors of the report is that the very public challenges of the American response to COVID-19 may “perversely incentivize nations that may be interested in biological weapons to hedge more toward latent capabilities to create them, or worse.”
After all, it wasn’t just lives that were lost from COVID-19; the pandemic led to major economic damage, loss of trust in government and trillions in costs, even without knowing the long-term health impacts for those who caught the disease. And potential adversaries were watching closely.
“We had one of the world’s worst responses to the current pandemic. The fear that another country will see this an Achilles heel for the United States is really, really significant, and showing we are leveraging really cutting edge technologies is absolutely imperative to try as part of our deterrent strategy,” Parthemore said.
Investing not only in new technologies but in widescale, public exercises could have a deterrent effect, in the same way military exercises can have a deterrent effect – by showing a ready capability is at hand to deal with a potential threat.
“There is great strategic value in investing heavily over the next 3-5 years” to be able to say “you’ll never be able to hit us this hard ever again,” she added.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.