The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how emerging biological threats can cause catastrophic loss of life, sustained damage to the economy, societal instability, and global insecurity. Biological threats can include naturally occurring outbreaks of pathogens, such as Ebola; biotechnology, such as gene modification and genetic data; and bioweapons, such as anthrax.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has previously reported on emerging biological threats, the role of the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) in producing and disseminating medical intelligence, and Department of Defense (DOD) and Intelligence Community (IC) efforts to mitigate the risks posed by China’s collection and use of U.S. genetic data. GAO found, in its report on emerging biological threats, that DOD is coordinating research and development efforts of a range of internal and external stakeholders—including DOD research laboratories, academia, and private industry partners—to respond to emerging biological threats. However, GAO also found that DOD does not have full knowledge of the entire range of its biodefense capabilities or related gaps.
In addition, GAO found in its report on the role of NCMI in producing and disseminating medical intelligence, that NCMI lacks clear roles and responsibilities for the distribution and coordination of medical intelligence among its customers. GAO also found that NCMI has established a limited number of formal and documented relationships with its customers and instead often relies on ad hoc communications and existing relationships between officials. Further, GAO’s work on DOD and IC efforts to mitigate the risks posed by China’s collection and use of genetic data found that China’s intent and ability to access and exploit U.S. genetic data presents several risks that could threaten U.S. national security. In these three separate GAO reports issued in early 2022, GAO made recommendations that it says would help DOD and the IC take steps to enhance preparedness for biological threats. However, as of September 2022, DOD and the IC have not yet implemented these recommendations.
GAO underlines that biological threats are one of the most serious national security challenges facing the United States and the international community, as stated in the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy (strategy). In many countries around the world, pathogens are stored in laboratories that lack appropriate biosafety or biosecurity measures, according to the strategy. The lack of appropriate safety and security measures increases the risk of either an outbreak through an accidental pathogen release or diversion of a pathogen by actors such as terrorist organizations—either of which, among other factors, could increase the risk that another public health emergency like COVID-19 occurs.
Going forward, the COVID-19 pandemic and other biological threats may present new risks for which federal agencies that have a role in responding to biological threats, including DOD and the IC, will need to prepare. For example, GAO says Chinese companies are gaining access to global health data by establishing laboratories intended to support COVID-19 testing. The analysis of large genetic data sets from diverse populations can help foster new medical discoveries and cures. However, in the hands of the Chinese government, this genetic information could pose national security consequences and risks to the joint force and mission of DOD and the IC. The government watchdog maintains that medical intelligence—the collection, evaluation, and analysis of health threats and issues—is critical for managing these types of risks of global health threats and plays a key role in helping the United States prepare for such threats.