The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a structural vulnerability to biological attacks in the U.S. and Europe that requires urgent government action, multiple current and former national security and public health officials told NBC News.
Former officials in the U.S. and the U.K. warn that the devastating impact of the coronavirus on health care infrastructures and economies may act as a "neon light" for terrorist groups looking to unleash pathogens on Western nations.
The pandemic has shown that the West has trouble testing, tracking and treating a pandemic or sustaining a supply of protective equipment for health care workers. It has also raised questions about the security of pathogen research labs worldwide.
"Many of the very worst-case characteristics of an intentional event are also being seen in this naturally occurring pandemic," said Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Kadlec, a retired Air Force colonel and surgeon who has spent much of the past two decades focused on biodefense policy and legislation inside the White House, the Defense Department and the Senate, helped the FBI with its investigation into the 2001 "Amerithrax" attacks. The perpetrator in the attacks, which killed five people and infected 17 others, used anthrax from a government lab. "We've come a long way in 20 years, and yet there is so much more that needs to be done," he said.
The Trump administration's repeated assertion that the virus may have escaped from a Chinese laboratory has placed the security measures at such facilities worldwide under a microscope.
Over the past century, only a couple of dozen countries have developed biological weapons programs. But security experts expressed concern about "dual use" laboratories — where scientists examine pathogens for research purposes and to develop vaccines.
Legislation signed by President Barack Obama obliged the incoming Trump administration to develop a national biodefense strategy, which was published in September 2018. It sought to centralize a federal response team to handle naturally occurring, accidental and deliberate biological threats and to build on previous experiences, including the 2001 anthrax attacks, a 2009 influenza pandemic, the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the more recent fallout from the Zika virus.
But it also highlighted the dangers of storing lethal pathogens in laboratories that might lack "appropriate biosecurity measures," which would mean that "actors who wish to do harm" could divert them. The number of these "biosafety level 4" labs, where scientists research easily transmitted pathogens, has multiplied rapidly in recent years. And to many security experts, the locations of some facilities and their insufficient safeguards represent a substantial threat.
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