COVID-19 Crisis Has Exposed US Weaknesses to Bioterror
Preparation failures combined with the fast spread of the COVID-19 virus have exposed America’s vulnerabilities to terrorists, several bioterrorism specialists told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT).
These failures have included an inadequate inventory of ventilators, personal protective equipment such as face shields, gloves and gowns, and an inability to handle the patient onslaught in cities like New York that have been in terrorists’ crosshairs for decades.
“I think that people are certainly observing what is happening with COVID-19 and how it is spread, and thinking about how to use that [information] tactically,” said Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. “ISIS and al-Qaida, and presumably other terrorist organizations, they are pursuing biological agents, and they are pursuing chemical weapons for terrorist purposes.”
Pandemic and bioterrorism preparedness are inseparable, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in 2013.
The US Intelligence Community’s January 2019 threat assessment warned of the “potential for adversaries to develop novel biological warfare agents.”
George attributes the current lack of preparedness to the “apathy” of the policymakers responsible for funding and implementing bioterrorism and pandemic countermeasures. who never thought a pandemic like COVID-19 would happen.
“From the standpoint of risk analysis, recency bias — that is, an overwhelming focus on events that have happened most recently — is one of the most nefarious psychological blinders,” an October Security magazine article warned. “It nudges us toward considering what is important now but can prevent both a thorough review of the past and an imaginative look into the future. Our immediate past has elevated issues such as cybersecurity and drones to the top of risk forecasts. These are critical, but biological threats (or ‘biothreats’) deserve our attention more than ever.”
The failure of prior 21st century pandemics, including SARS, the bird flu, H1N1 and Ebola, to live up to fears lulled security professionals into a state of complacency, the article said.
“As a culture, we’re good at saying, ‘Well, we’re really good responders, and so we’ll just respond.’ What we’re finding out now is that it just doesn’t work,” George said.
Worryingly, terrorists sought chemical and biological weapons long before COVID-19.
In 2014, journalists recovered an ISIS operative’s laptop containing information on bioweapons, and documents justifying their use. Some of the files detailed how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.
“If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir [unbelievers] in a different way, it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction,” one of the documents said.
A 2018 ISIS propaganda video called on Muslims living in Western countries and Russia to carry out biological attacks, noting that biological weapons are silent killers in contrast to bombs or the airliners used in the 9/11 attacks. It discussed using inhaled viruses and bacteria.
“Islam prohibits the use of this type of mass terrorism [but] allows it in the exception of repelling aggression and reciprocity,” the video said. “With simple equipment, extract harmful viruses and bacteria then release them.”
Several ISIS-linked plots involving biological weapons have been foiled.
Kenyan authorities broke up a 2016 anthrax attack plot by an ISIS-linked group.
A Wisconsin woman, Wabeha Dais, pleaded guilty last year to providing ISIS supporters with a recipe to produce the toxic chemical ricin, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists as a bioweapon.
Al-Qaeda attempted to create biological weapons in Afghanistan prior to the US invasion in 2001.
“You can spread [some biological agents] the same way that this particular organism is spreading whether it is natural or otherwise just by human-to-human transmission, where it infects a lot of people,” said former CIA operative Sam Faddis, who headed the agency’s counter-terrorism unit that tracked weapons of mass destruction. “Why would a group like ISIS care? If you use tactics routinely where you strap explosives to your body and blow yourself up and are willing to blow up synagogues, churches and mosques, why would you not be willing to infect your own people?”
Diseases such as the pneumonic plague that are spread via coughing could have a similar impact because it’s spread by droplets transmitted by coughing, Faddis said.
Using an infected person on a suicide mission of infecting others is not out of the question, George said.
Some biological agents are available on the Dark Web. Utah authorities arrested a Salt Lake City woman, Janie Lynn Ridd, in December on charges that she attempted to obtain a bioweapon. She used $300 in bitcoin to buy an antibiotic-resistant bacterium that causes staph infections.
“That sort of stuff has been going on forever on a scale that most people aren’t aware of, and is going on now at an even greater rate,” Faddis said. “If you are looking at biological warfare and you are looking at the kind of crude mechanisms that terrorists use … it’s not that hard to work with biological organisms and all you really need is a good lab tech.”
RAND Corporation bioterrorism scholar David Gerstein, who served as acting undersecretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, shares concern that terrorists could use the Dark Web to facilitate a bioterrorism plot.
“I think anytime you’ve got the Dark Web and you’ve got information that’s out there and becomes available to people who might misuse it, that’s a concern,” Gerstein said. “I think we know that many of these capabilities are becoming more available and more democratized, hence their chance of misuse.”
However, research has shown that creating designer viruses is harder than many people think.
“In bioterrorism, there are some nuances that make it complex for a terrorist to do,” Gerstein said. “Could you create a biological mess? Yes. But you may kill yourself in the process, so there are some disincentives along the way.”
Lab security has come under scrutiny in recent years. A security breach may have been linked to the 2001 anthrax attack against Senate offices, the Supreme Court and NBC News. FBI investigators concluded that Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMARIID), was responsible. He committed suicide in 2008 before he could be charged.
In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) cited China for allowing SARS to escape a government lab in Beijing on two separate occasions.
Failings exposed by the COVID-19 crisis have long been known to bioterrorism researchers.
“The government comes up with these strategies, and some of them are pretty good,” Gerstein said. “But what happens is that they sort of put out these strategies but forget that a strategy is not just the objectives; it’s also the resources to accomplish the objectives. So, most of these strategies simply do not come to fruition.”
A shortage of surgical masks occurred during the 2009 H1N1 Swine flu pandemic just as it has in the current COVID-19 outbreak. In 2010, a Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism report card gave US bioterrorism preparedness an F. There was “no national plan to coordinate federal, state, and local efforts following a bioterror attack, and the United States lacks the technical and operational capabilities required for an adequate response,” it said.
Obama-era budget battles resulted in a failure to replenish the surgical masks that contributed to the current lack of preparedness.
“We weren’t prepared the day Donald Trump came into office. We weren’t prepared at any time during the Obama administration,” Faddis said. “This is not a political thing. This is not a somebody else got it right and somebody else screwed it up kind of a thing. We have focused on this the way we have focused on so many things in Washington. We build a bureaucracy. We draw a line diagram. We throw a lot of money. And that’s just kind of assumed therefore that equals accomplishment.”
COVID-19 presents a call for planners and policymakers to shift to being proactive to save lives during the next bioterrorist attack or pandemic, George said.