FORT BELVOIR, Va. — The H1N1 virus. The gassing of schools in Southwestern and Central Asia. These recent events are reminders of how deadly chemical and biological threats can be, whether they are natural or man-made.
U.S. officials believe that terrorists aspire to build bio-weapons. The White House in recent months has sought to beef up science and technology for global bio-surveillance to counter the threat. It is also expanding collaborative efforts with international partners.
“When we think of countering weapons of mass destruction, we have to think layered defenses. We can’t just think about our borders,” said John Harvey, principal deputy for the assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs. “We have to reach out beyond our borders to try to deal with this, to build the capacity, to try to build the partners that we need.”
One of the newer initiatives is the national strategy for countering biological threats, said Bill Huff, chief of the chemical and biological operations division at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The White House last November issued the strategy, which was spawned in part by a 2008 weapons of mass destruction commission report that predicted a biological weapon attack could happen within the next five years.
“Part of that strategy is to strengthen the abilities of our foreign partners to exploit life sciences,” he said.
The Defense Department is working to implement the plan, said Harvey. The United States so far has succeeded in preventing a nuclear attack because the processes to build a weapon — enriching uranium or separating plutonium from a reactor — are difficult for terrorists. But attaining chemical agents and biological pathogens are comparatively easy because the technologies are much more ubiquitous. The Defense Department wants to prevent terrorists from acquiring those tools, said Harvey.
“Our security, particularly in the chem-bio and nuclear areas, depends upon our ability to engage international partners,” he said. “Get them thinking about the problem and working to help us to help identify, detect, diagnose and attribute the origin of potential weapons of mass destruction.”
To date, the focus has been in Russia, where the bulk of bio-threats has historically existed. But the department is broadening its scope.
Regional combatant commanders are being asked to help engage international partners, said Harvey.
“Gen. David Petraeus is fighting two wars right now. His top priority is not countering weapons of mass destruction; it’s dealing with the day-to-day activities,” said Harvey. “But he understands this and others do as well, that these do present a long-term threat.”
DTRA is seeking to boost capabilities to detect, diagnose and attribute the origin of biological or chemical threats.
“If we can develop the forensic means to identify where this stuff is coming from and what lab it came from, for example, we have a better opportunity to get those who might be doing this stuff to think twice about it, because we can pin it on them,” said Harvey.
DTRA officials and scientists have been working with a number of countries, including Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, said Ronnie Faircloth, director of the cooperative threat reduction directorate. A program in Armenia will get under way once its government ratifies the agreement.
“It is in the U.S. best interest … to partner with as many people as we can to expand our early warning system and to enhance their ability to meet the international health regulation standards that almost every country has committed to. They have to meet that by 2012 — detection, diagnostics and reporting,” said Faircloth.
Teamed with the Danish and Canadian governments, the United States is building a bio-reference laboratory in Kazakhstan. The country’s ministry of health will manage the facility, which will house a bio-safety laboratory where scientists can conduct experiments. The project also includes representatives from the ministries of agriculture, education and science.
In the coming years, the United States will pursue similar initiatives in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. “We are going global,” said Faircloth. But “we’re limited by the number of people, time and dollars to implement some of these programs.”
The Defense Department in fiscal year 2011 requested $130 million more than the program’s baseline funding of $420 million.
“We’re looking into countries where these threats might emerge from — Pakistan and elsewhere, and working with them to try to set up cooperative relationships in bio-surveillance and detection, and more broadly, bio-defense,” said Harvey. “We’re not just talking about man-made threats. We’re talking about naturally occurring threats as well. These things tend to merge together. Bad guys could plant H1N1, which is naturally occurring, and cause us a lot of problems.”
Along with bio-surveillance, there is also an emphasis on “consequence management,” which generally is defined as the government’s response to an attack.
“We realize that we need to do a better job in supporting state and local authorities in domestic events,” said Harvey. “The thing that we need to do is extend this to foreign consequence management. Like in Haiti, we’re going to get called in and we’re going to have to deal with that,” he added. “How do we build these capabilities overseas?”
Scientists want to understand the genetic and molecular makeup of diseases and how they impact people, officials said. The objective is to be able to pinpoint their origin and ultimately save lives.
Another area that needs work is in the sharing of information across medical, laboratory, bio-surveillance and environmental organizations. Scientists want to consolidate the data and create predictive models that can help nations understand what is going on in the environment and anticipate problems.
One program, the interagency biological restoration demonstration, explores how a city would cope with a biological attack. The program is co-funded by Defense and Homeland Security. Last fall, officials conducted a test in Seattle involving citywide exposure to simulated anthrax. Local first responders worked with state and federal government officials in that exercise, said Jerry Pate, deputy chief of the chem-bio directorate’s physical science and technology division.
In April, a follow-on experiment took place at the Marshall Center in Germany involving about 200 allied country representatives. The scenario featured a simulated anthrax release in Bulgaria. The intent was to see how European countries would respond and what support they would require from NATO and U.S. forces stationed on bases there. Pate said the division would be working with the State Department in a future exercise there.