Pentagon biodefense review points to Chinese, Russian threats

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A Defense Department review of biological threats released Thursday said the U.S. military is at a “pivotal moment” in biodefense and must act urgently to address the potential of bioweapons and other catastrophic events, including pandemics. In particular, the review highlighted a growing threat posed by China as well as acute dangers emanating from Russia and persistent threats from North Korea, Iran and violent extremist organizations.

The posture review — designed to set the tone for Defense Department strategy on biodefense through 2035 — singles out China as the key long-term threat, casting doubt over Beijing’s compliance with existing international rules on biowarfare and raising concerns over its accelerated plans to integrate civilian biological research programs into the military.

It also assesses that China, Russia, North Korea and Iran probably maintain the ability to create deadly toxins and pathogens, and that “advances in both synthetic biology and peptide synthesis could enable states to develop a wide range of novel toxins with both incapacitating and lethal effects.” The report also assessed that Russia and North Korea maintain active offensive biological weapons programs.

The review draws on lessons learned from the covid-19 response as well as the Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy and follows years of growing tensions between Beijing and Washington over biological research, including speculation over the origins of the coronavirus and unproven accusations from Beijing that the United States conducted bio-military research in Ukraine.

While the review is wide-reaching, its focus on China as a top priority is a departure from previous assessments, and highlights new concerns over Beijing’s expanding efforts to fortify biological resources.

“I would not be surprised if by next year they’re saying China has some offensive biological weapons programs. Usually, they just say something like, you are concerned about dual use. And this year they didn’t do that,” said Asha M. George, executive director at the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, who added that Russia remains an equally concerning threat.

“It could be that the DOD is putting China first because of all the billions and billions that they’re investing. And they probably don’t have evidence that Russia is putting in that much money in terms of the bio-economy,” she said.

White House warns Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine, rejects false ‘conspiracy’ of U.S. biolabs

Beijing over the past decade has invested heavily in a network of high-level biosafety labs, equipped to handle and test more dangerous pathogens. It has also spent billions of dollars on broader scientific research programs with the goal of becoming a world leader in highly specialized medical and biological research.

“The United States has compliance concerns with respect to PRC military medical institutions’ toxin research and development given their potential as a biothreat. The PRC has also released plans to make China the global leader in technologies like genetic engineering, precision medicine, and brain sciences,” said the Defense Department review, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

China has enacted wide-reaching policy changes that have increasingly redefined biological research within the national security framework, restricting collaboration abroad. In 2017, Beijing said special funds would be made available for biological research as part of the country’s “military civil fusion” drive — a national program to integrate civilian technology and research into the People’s Liberation Army.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Beijing declined to comment on specific claims in the new report, but said China is “firmly against the proliferation of biological weapons and their technologies, and we have continuously strengthened export control on dual-use biological items and technologies.” The spokesman further noted that China has been a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention since 1984.

China’s struggles with lab safety carry danger of another pandemic

Beijing has called for the United States to release more details of its own biodefense research and has echoed unproven claims made by Moscow that the Pentagon is financing biological weapons labs in Ukraine.

In March of last year, the White House labeled the claims “preposterous” and warned that Russia could employ its own bioweapons in Ukraine. There is some limited evidence that Russia has used low-grade chemical attacks in Ukraine, including tear gas. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last year that Russia’s military had used bombs that dispersed white phosphorus, a highly incendiary chemical. Moscow at the time denied it had violated international conventions.

Thursday’s Pentagon review said China and Russia “have also proven adept at manipulating the information space to inhibit attribution” of bio-threats, saying it could complicate U.S. decision-making in the event that bioweapons are used.

The review calls for broader streamlining of responsibilities within the Defense Department to address the burgeoning biosecurity threat, as well as efforts to step up intelligence collection, biosurveillance and early-warning analysis.

It said the Pentagon needed “a more collective and unified approach to coordinating its biodefense roles and responsibilities due to the decentralized nature of the biodefense enterprise,” and warned of “limited situational awareness of biothreats” and “shortfalls in readiness and preparedness.”

“They need to get way more organized and coordinated in terms of what’s going on inside the Department of Defense. And that is not necessarily an easy thing to do because there are natural divisions and silos,” said George of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. “It’s clear they’re making a concerted attempt.”

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