Jul 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biological weapons could target DNA, food supply, two U.S. lawmakers say

Rep. Jason Crow

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) conducts a news conference on July 13. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Biological and chemical weapons have the potential to pose a national security threat to the U.S. that the country is not equipped to handle, a panel of lawmakers and a military leader told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday.

Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how globally debilitating and dangerous pathogens could be if deliberately engineered and released.

  • In May, former federal officials warned that the U.S. is not prepared for the possibility of germ warfare.

The big picture Army Gen. Richard Clarke, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said chemical weapons such as chlorine and mustard gas had been used in 2014-16 by actors such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

  • Clarke said non-state actors such as ISIS or al-Qaeda continue to look to these weapons "because they instill fear." As such it is necessary to develop capabilities to protect U.S. troops that are in proximity, which the U.S. is working to do, Clarke said.
  • Clarke added that state actors like Russia could also pose a threat.
  • “Russia is willing to use those against political opponents. They're willing to use them on their own soil, but then to go in on the soil of a NATO ally in the UK and use those," Clarke said, alluding to the nerve agent attack against British resident Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018.
  • "As we go into the future, we have to be prepared for that eventuality. And I don't think we talk about it as much as we should and look for methods to continue to combat it."

What they're saying: “There are now weapons under development, and developed, that are designed to target specific people," Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a member of the House Committee on Armed Services and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told the audience.

  • "That's what this is, where you can actually take someone's DNA, you know, their medical profile, and you can target a biological weapon that will kill that person or take them off the battlefield or make them inoperable," Crow said.
  • "You can't have a discussion about this without talking about privacy in commercial data, and the protection of commercial data, because expectations of privacy have degraded over the last 20 years."
  • “People will very rapidly spit into a cup and send it to 23andMe and get really interesting data about their background — and guess what? Their DNA is now owned by a private company. It can be sold off ... with very little intellectual property protection or privacy protection, and we don't have legal and regulatory regimes that deal with that."
  • "That data is actually going to be procured and collected by our adversaries for the development of these systems," Crow warned.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of the Senate's Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities and Armed Services Committee, added that biological weapons can be equally dangerous if they are designed to target food systems rather than people.

  • "If we look at food security, and what can our adversaries do with biological weapons that are directed at our animal agriculture, at our agricultural sector?" Ernst asked.
  • "Highly pathogenic avian influenza, African swine fever, all of these things have circulated around the globe, but if targeted by an adversary, we know that it brings about food insecurity. Food insecurity drives a lot of other insecurities around the globe," she added.
  • "There's a number of ways we can look at biological weapons and the need to make sure not only are we securing human beings, but then also the food that will sustain us," Ernst said, adding that she believes food will be increasingly weaponized in the future, pointing to how Russia has weaponized food in its war in Ukraine as an example.
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