The Pentagon is seen on Oct. 21, 2021.

The Pentagon is seen on Oct. 21, 2021. (Robert H. Reid/Stars and Stripes)

The Pentagon has formed a leadership panel aimed at shoring defenses against emerging biothreats, one of a series of steps outlined in a sweeping, first-of-its kind report that found gaps in preparation.

The 54-page "Biodefense Posture Review," viewed by Bloomberg News, dissects the Defense Department's limited capacity to respond to a host of dangers, including Russian bioweapons, lab accidents, drug-resistant bacteria and artificial intelligence, and outlines reforms to bolster readiness. Taking direction from the report, the department is forming a Biodefense Council consisting of several of its top officials to advise the secretary of defense and coordinate domestic and international efforts to anticipate and respond to emergencies.

The list of potential biothreats is ever expanding. Climate change, globalization and the destruction of habitats have put humans into more contact with disease. The proliferation of high-containment labs conducting risky research have increased risk of accidental infection. And technological advances have made it easier to produce new and deadly pathogens at scale. Efforts by the military to collect intelligence on these threats and distinguish between them are lagging, according to the review.

Jaime Yassif, vice president of global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former Pentagon adviser said that in the past, cycles of "panic and neglect" have resulted in cuts to many programs that would shore up defenses, adding that "it's been disappointing to witness the inadequate funding for pandemic preparedness and biosecurity."

Now, the military seeks to break the cycle.

In November 2021, following an administration push for federal agencies to bolster readiness for health crises, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed the Pentagon's senior leadership to assess the landscape of biological threats.

The pandemic wasn't the sole factor driving what would become a comprehensive, nearly two-year review, said Richard Johnson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and countering weapons of mass destruction.

For foreign nations and terrorists alike, it has become much easier and cheaper to produce at scale dangerous pathogens thanks to recent advances in biology, data science, artificial intelligence and manufacturing techniques, according to the review.

These actors may even be able to rebuild extinct ones or make existing ones deadlier, according to the review. Johnson said the review reflects "a realization that biothreats are here to stay."

Among the biothreats the Defense Department is watching most closely: the potential for weapons developed by Russia, North Korea, Iran and China, all of which have in the past pursued deadly pathogens, like anthrax, plague and deadly toxins like botulinum, according to the review.

The review says that U.S. officials believe governments like Russia and North Korea continue to operate bioweapons programs in violation of a global treaty. In the review, the Pentagon warns that multiple nations have also pursued clandestine bioweapons programs and that a range of terrorist groups have attempted to acquire them.

Since invading Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has spread disinformation that the U.S. has helped the country develop bioweapons. The U.S. has denied the claim and officials have said that Russia may use such weapons on Ukrainian soil — and then cast blame on the lab that has been a focus of its disinformation. "The Ukraine situation reminds us that these are not the threats of yesteryear," Johnson said.

The review also notes that China now has capabilities that could be used to create biological weapons, and that Chinese publications have referred to biology as "a new domain of war."

With biological threats growing more complex, the U.S. military needs more robust intelligence and early warning signals to detect threats, the review says. Its own analysts suggest that the Defense Department often first hears about a health crisis through public health partners, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than through the intelligence community.

Identifying the outbreak is the first challenge. Determining what caused it is even more difficult — and becoming increasingly so with technological advances and the prevalence of disinformation.

Adversaries could weaponize bacteria or viruses that exist in nature, release them into the public and then spread disinformation about the source to deceive the public, the review says. At present, the military cannot easily distinguish such an attack from a natural outbreak or a lab accident.

Johnson said the Pentagon needs to ensure that the military is sufficiently trained to spot and analyze these threats, even as the science evolves. That means looking beyond traditional intelligence tools and ensuring the right people are examining the information that's available. "You aren't going to be able to address something like AI without having all the right players in the room," he said.


The review, which examines the biothreat landscape through 2035, highlights an array of reforms, including training troops to respond to incidents and building stockpiles of key supplies like personal protective equipment. It also recommends improved intelligence sharing and collaboration with U.S. allies.

To help with early detection, it recommends developing a hub for biosurveillance data that could include information collected from wearable devices, medical records, wastewater and genomic sequencing. It also aims to expand research into new vaccines and treatments for not-yet-seen threats.

Yassif said the resources Washington invests in preparedness should meet the level of seriousness of the potential threats, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

In advance of the review's release, the Defense Department sought an additional $812.5 million in its fiscal year 2024 budget request to turn the review's recommendations into action. That includes funding for another 115 civilian employees and brings the department's total request for next year's biodefense programs to $2 billion.

While this represents only a fraction of the Defense Department's overarching budget, it would mark the second largest expenditure on biodefense in the federal government after the Department of Health and Human Services.

Johnson admits that the Pentagon does find itself duplicating existing efforts at times. But the Biodefense Council will help fix that, he said.

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