(April 7, 2020 / JNS) The hard lessons of the coronavirus pandemic will hopefully motivate the world to work together in the future to mitigate the effects of the next naturally occurring global viral threat. But it should also open our eyes to the potentially greater threat of human-made biological weapons—the deliberate release of a pathogen or biotoxin against humans or animals.
In 2017, the International Committee of the Red Cross asked the question as to how real the threat of biological weapons was. “It’s never been easier to develop and use biological weapons … . It’s time to take this seriously. Governments need to assess the new risks,” was the response.
In 2010, the U.S. Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), reported that, “Unfortunately, there is 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.” Since the anthrax scare post-9/11, America has spent billions of dollars on bio-defense, and provided the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases with more than a billion dollars annually for biodefense research.
But it may not be enough.
Today, viruses and microbes can be weaponized using gene-editing CRISPR technology to weaponize everything from smallpox to Ebola to the Spanish flu. In addition, bio-weapons have been produced and stockpiled around the world—how securely, your guess is as good as mine. Some experts think extremists are now more likely in the coming years to use bioterrorism than nuclear weapons.
The current pandemic may have whetted their appetite for biological disaster as a path to anarchy and chaos which could destabilize their target enemies. Whether we are speaking of Iran’s revolutionaries hastening the return of the hidden imam, the irrational megalomaniac in North Korea, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda Salafists, drug cartels in South America, or neo-Nazis in Europe or America, we must think like they do to prevent the next potential threat.
Unlike the coronavirus pandemic that indiscriminately attacks everyone, the next catastrophe could be fashioned to target certain areas and populations.
The West, except for Israel to some extent, is woefully unprepared for biological threats. Fourteen years ago, I visited a newly constructed underground hospital in northern Israel whose air-filtration system was designed with protection from chemical and biological weapons.
Of course, we cannot put everyone underground, but there are many ways Israel continually prepares its citizens and mitigates the potential for future attacks in its small geographic neighborhood surrounded by enemies who can deliver lethal unconventional attacks with crude missiles at a moment’s notice, for whom the threat of retaliation is likely the only barrier to the use of nonconventional weapons. Remember, rogue leaders like Syria’s Hafez (and now Bashar) Assad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein weren’t ashamed to kill their own people with poison gasses.
What the United States and the West can and should learn is that these attacks are not far-fetched, and we must invest in the resources not only to be defensive, but to stop them at their source like Israel routinely does. An American withdrawal from the Middle East—losing our eyes and ears, and HUMINT (human intelligence)—is a prescription to endanger our homeland in the future.
Wholesale deliberate massacres are plentiful in recent history. As many as 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists in 100 days. Pol Pot killed at least a million-and-a-half of his citizens; and the Nazis on an industrial scale killed 6 million Jews and millions of others. In Syria, 500,000 of its citizens have been killed, with millions displaced, and the world yawns. Too many people have an indifferent side to suffering, and we mustn’t think that there aren’t zealots who would rationalize the use of unconventional biological weapons to advance their goals.
To understand how far from Western norms a rogue nation could be, just look back at the Iran-Iraq war, when the Ayatollah sent tens of thousands of Iranian children to clear minefields and barbed wire for tanks, giving them keys that they were told were tickets to paradise if they were lucky enough to become martyrs.
A U.S. Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense in 2016 warned that “our nation remains woefully underprepared for dangerous biological incidents.” The American people are ready for leadership on this issue.
COVID-19 is a wakeup call to believe that in the future, not only can another species-leaping virus wreak havoc on the world, but it may be man-made the next time. We need not panic, but with time and clearsighted leadership, we should begin to think about how to fight the next unconventional threat that could use a virus, bacteria, fungus or nanoparticle as a weapon of mass destruction.
Our Achilles’ heel will be the amnesia of time, as people will become naturally complacent when future warnings will not materialize, lowering our guard in the years to follow.
The lessons we learn from the pandemic should prepare us for the next novel viral attack. At a minimum, they should include the availability of early widespread viral and antibody testing; stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators; and the accelerated testing and manufacturing of medicines and vaccines that will be essential if a bioterror strikes America or Israel.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”
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