The danger of a chemical or biological attack against the U.S. homeland is growing. In the case of chemical threats, thousands of sites around the world manufacture precursors that could be used to fashion weaponized toxins such as nerve gas. North Korea and Syria apparently have done so. In the case of biological threats, the tools and skills needed to engineer virulent pathogens are increasingly available to extremists. Either type of threat could kill vast numbers of Americans.
Against that backdrop, the Lexington Institute on June 18 released a concise report describing the nature of the threat, detailing why the danger of an attack is growing, and delineating what steps the federal government should take to bolster preparedness. In brief, the findings of the report are as follows:
- The federal government spends little on preparing for chemical or biological attacks against the U.S. homeland, even though the risk of such attacks is rising.
- Biological threats such as bacteria and viruses potentially can kill millions; recent advances in the life sciences now enable researchers to fashion lethal pathogens in laboratories.
- Skills to inexpensively synthesize pathogens are identical to those used in other areas of biological research, and have become increasingly available to extremists through global commerce.
- The precursors of lethal chemical weapons such as nerve agents are manufactured at thousands of sites around the world, and have been weaponized by countries such as Syria and North Korea.
- Treaties banning chemical and biological weapons have been signed by many countries, but it is difficult to control the spread of relevant technologies and there are no agreed standards on sharing information.
- Researchers have recently synthesized a virus similar to that causing smallpox — the most lethal virus in history — and published information on how they did it in a public forum.
- Federal preparations for detecting and responding to chemical or biological attacks are under-funded and fragmented between many agencies and congressional committees.
- New technologies have been developed for countering the threat of chem-bio attack, but the government needs a central coordinating mechanism to assure those technologies are deployed in timely fashion.
- Some of the new technologies cut the cost of identifying threatening agents to a small fraction of that required by traditional methods and greatly reduce the time needed, potentially bolstering chem-bio defense efforts.
- The government should strengthen homeland defenses against chemical and biological threats, including the accidental release of pathogens from laboratories — a process that requires relatively little additional money but more leadership.
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