As Russia's war in Ukraine drags on, the threat of a biological attack increases. Here at home, experts warn the U.S. is not prepared to adequately defend against germ warfare.
According to the State Department, both Russia and North Korea have active biological weapons programs. China and Iran aren't far behind. But there are serious questions as to whether the main system to detect a biological attack here in the U.S. even works.
"So the nation has a national bio-detection system called BioWatch, and associated with that is an acquisition program called BD21...my understanding is they don't work period for most of the biological agents for which those systems are supposed to be detecting," said Dr. Asha George, the Executive Director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.
The Department of Homeland Security launched BioWatch back in 2003, and the technology hasn't been updated since. George says it's time for DHS to shut it down.
"There needs to be some kind of transfer of technology, or transfer of mission out of the Department of Homeland Security to somebody else if DHS can't handle it...if it's a basic science issue, we need to get the science and technology community, the basic research people, back involved to produce something," George told CBN News.
We recently saw the issues with this detection technology play out when the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was officially confirmed on Jan. 21, 2020. Studies suggest, however, the virus started circulating here up to a month earlier.
"We must be prepared for the next bio-security crisis. If COVID lessons learned do not teach us the value of preparedness I do not know what will. Waiting for the next crisis to take action, is too late," Dr. Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
George testified in the same hearing. She pointed out a lack of investment in this area puts the country at an extreme disadvantage.
"Russia and China are investing billions into their bio-economy and part of doing that is investment in protective technologies, vaccines, personal protective equipment, and anything else that will bring the economic aspect of biology in the 21st century up to the next level," George said.
One response element in desperate need of funding is the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). Originally created to ensure the nation's readiness against agents of bio-terrorism like anthrax, SNS has evolved and now also contains stores of vaccines, treatments, and equipment.
"The Strategic National Stockpile is kind of like a pantry, and just like you're going to make something you don't make that often, but you walk into the pantry and you say, well here's my sea salt...and here's my baker's yeast, you go and you pull it off and you use it when you need it," explained Sen. Bill Cassidy, (R) LA.
Sticking with that analogy, when we needed the baker's yeast, it had expired. Investment has been sporadic over the years due to lack of biological threats. Then when COVID-19 hit, supplies were diminished, expired, or the technology was out of date.
Sen. Cassidy says the SNS needs serious reform, and he believes it can be done in a way that helps to solve the funding problem.
"I would like it so that it can be cycled out not wasted and then replaced on the back end...if you're selling something a year before it expires, you've got money to buy something new," Cassidy told CBN News.
He says the pandemic is now the playbook for biological warfare, which makes learning quickly from our mistakes a matter of national security.
"We'll never know for sure whether or not that virus started in a Wuhan lab or just spontaneously occurred. But what we do know is that now our enemies know how to do it. You would come up with the designer virus, you would simultaneously come up with a highly effective vaccine. You would give the vaccine to all your people, and then you would release the virus," Cassidy explained.
Given the COVID-19 wakeup call, the government is moving to address various gaps, including legislation to reform SNS, and new investigations by both the intelligence community and the Pentagon, to delve into the potential threats we face, and where our bio-defense currently stands.
"To have a threat increase without significant effort to try and at least prevent it from getting worse, only puts us and the rest of the world in a situation where if a biological weapon were to be used, it's going to be that much more catastrophic. We cant have that," said Dr. George.
In 2015, the Bipartisan Commission on Bio-defense laid out 33 recommendations to prepare for a large-scale biological event. To date, only three have been fully completed.