Biodefense Posture Review Raises Alarms about New Threats but Speaks Softly on China

On Thursday, the Department of Defense (DOD) released its 2023 Biodefense Posture Review (BPR), the first of its kind. Its stated purpose is to clarify biodefense missions and roles within DOD, but the pages of Pentagon-speak obliquely hint at the dark reason why this report is much needed, and why now: the alarming bioengineering threat from China.

The authors of the review describe a fundamentally different threat environment than in the recent past. While a potential biological threat from terrorist groups has long been a nightmare scenario for those in the national security establishment, this report now shows how DOD has expanded the picture to consider threats that are also accidental and naturally occurring. Threats emanate from accelerating changes in science, the massive proliferation of underregulated laboratories, and the investment by powerful states in bioweapons.

The BPR laid out six goals, the first of which is to “fully assess the biothreat landscape through 2035”—a nearly impossible task, given the rapid pace of change, but better to do it than not even try. The other goals are largely internal, including clarifying missions, priorities, roles, authorities, and capabilities; positioning DOD to address future threats; and including biodefense in DOD training and doctrine. Each is meant to create focus on biodefense and make DOD better prepared to respond to a threat.

The report discusses the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) efforts to create new biological science alongside those of Russia, North Korea, and Iran. It sends a nuanced message on China, highlighting it as the pacing threat, but also pulling its punches somewhat. For example, it says that in several critical areas China “probably” is moving in a dangerous direction; it will be interesting to watch this space for more strident assertions of the threat from China in the future. The PRC has demonstrated a strong commitment to advancements in biotech but a weak commitment to ethical practices. The combination points to deeply worrying possibilities.

To discuss the new BPR and plans for meeting these challenges, CSIS hosted Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs Deborah Rosenblum and other DOD leadership.

Q1: What is the threat from bioengineering?

A1: The CSIS International Security Program’s recent report, Seven Critical Technologies for Winning the Next War, describes the threat from bioengineering as among the most serious threats posed by an emerging technology. Bioengineering will transform manufacturing, health, and weaponry. Synthetic biological compounds could create new biosensors that are game changers for surveillance, from the overall health of a population to tracking a particular individual or a chemical compound appearing in an environment. Weaponry might include genetically modified pathogens for which the human immune system has no natural immunity or compounds that could instantly pollute water or food supplies.

Meanwhile, another revolution will further accelerate biological development: the emergence of useful artificial intelligence. CIA Director William J. Burns called this a “hockey stick” acceleration in his recent speech, referring to a line graph relatively flat at the bottom with a sudden diagonal upturn. Artificial intelligence can generate an exponentially greater number of theoretical biological compounds, then edit the list down to potentially useful avenues for greater study, saving precious research time and funding.

Further, biological engineering can be scaled in a way never seen before. The BPR said that “technologies developed in the last decade could allow toxins, including engineered variants, to be synthesized in quantities that are more militarily relevant, raising the concern that they are no longer just suitable for targeted killings.” That is a stark warning in an otherwise rather sterile report.

Still, capability is not intent. These would all be theoretical concerns were it not for the troublesome track record of four bad actors. The BPR said that the PRC, Russia, North Korea, and Iran “probably maintain the knowledge and capability to produce and employ traditional pathogens and toxins. These countries historically pursued—and at least one country (North Korea) continues to pursue—pathogens that cause highly infectious or contagious diseases, such as anthrax, plague, and toxins, including botulinum toxin. These nations probably also retain the knowledge and ability to employ these agents if necessary.” It also specifically calls out Russia and North Korea for likely ongoing biological weapons programs. The BPR is silent (at least in its unclassified version) on these actors’ intent to deploy such capabilities, but intelligence professionals know that intent is the hardest thing to discern and is too often a lagging indicator.

Q2: Why the focus on China?

A2: Concerns about China’s advances in biotech are not new. In 2020, then director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe published an explosive op-ed in which he alleged that the PRC has conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army to develop soldiers with “biologically enhanced capabilities.” Beijing, of course, denied the claim. But on a more pedestrian level, the scientific community has long noted China’s increasing presence in scientific journals, along with concern about the ethics surrounding research practices. One leading neuroscience researcher estimated that “Some 95% of papers using transgenic monkeys come from China.” Further, Chinese researchers have cloned primates and genetically modified cynomolgus monkeys to exhibit “autistic-like” behaviors. As far back as 2001, a Chinese scientist created the world’s first human-rabbit embryo, leading to scientific and ethical outcry and new bans.

The BPR specifically mentions China’s plan to lead the globe in genetic engineering, precision medicine, and brain sciences and said “Chinese publications have called biology a new domain of war.” Meanwhile, China is hiding its hand. Along with Russia, the PRC has “proven adept at manipulating the information space to inhibit attribution, to reduce trust and confidence in countermeasure effectiveness, and potentially to slow decision-making following deliberate use.” China’s military activities overlap with those in universities and the commercial sector, further complicating the efforts by U.S. nonmilitary research partners to operate effectively inside China.

It remains unclear to what degree China has already moved forward on bioweapons, and to what degree the United States lags in its capacities to detect and respond. It would be useful to hear more from the administration on this question. 

Q3: Does the report address the debate about the origins of Covid-19?

A3: Put simply, no. Some in the public health field have indicated a certain exhaustion surrounding the debate over Covid-19 origins and a desire to move the conversation forward. While the BPR makes no judgements on whether Covid-19 arose in nature or escaped a lab in Wuhan, China, it does include a paragraph on the real potential threat from accidental lab leaks: “The risk of laboratory accidents may be increasing with the rise in the number of laboratories around the world conducting high-risk life sciences research and research with potential pandemic pathogens without appropriate oversight.” It calls for better biocontainment and biosafety practices and cautions that “laboratory accidents are possible due to human error or mechanical failures.”

The review was informed by the Covid-19 response, and it talks about military preparedness for pandemics. It also includes this eye-opening line: “The U.S. military has been involved in conflict operations during every declared pandemic of the 20th and 21st centuries. None of these events were a result of bioweapon use, but they all challenged the military’s operational capabilities.”

Q4: But aren’t there treaties and conventions to prevent dual-use research?

A4: Not really. The Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention (BWC), created in 1975 to ban all biological weapons, states that use of biological weapons and toxins would be “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” States party agree not to “develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or obtain: Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes,” among other obligations. There is no formal verification regime. China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the United States have all ratified the BWC.

However, DOD’s review says that “The United States assesses that North Korea and Russia maintain offensive biological weapons programs in violation of Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention (BWC) obligations and identifies concerns with Iran’s activities and its compliance with the BWC.” It also cites “concerns” with PRC compliance with the BWC, based on “research and activities with potential dual-use applications. The United States has compliance concerns with respect to PRC military medical institutions’ toxin research and development given their potential as a biothreat.”

Q5: So how is DOD addressing these issues?

A5: DOD will establish a new internal governance structure that will impose order on what the review identifies as a scattered set of authorities and capabilities. DOD has created the Biodefense Council, chaired by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (USD(A&S)). A handful of under secretaries are “principals” on the council, including the under secretaries for policy, research and engineering, personnel and readiness, and intelligence and security. Other principals include the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and representatives from NORTHCOM and SOCOM. The list of “participants” is somewhat vague, but interestingly includes legislative affairs and public affairs, suggesting the council will seek to raise money from Congress and raise awareness in the public. The Intelligence Community inhabits the lowest rank of “contributor,” although it is unclear how that will be different that “participant.” It may mean, in Washington speak, “invited to meetings when necessary.”

The purpose of the council is also described in classic Washington speak. It will “synchronize, coordinate, and integrate authorities and responsibilities to provide an empowered and collaborative approach to sustained biodefense” and “facilitate integration and information flow; enable collective decisions; convene the biodefense enterprise to review topics on a recurring basis; and empower the heads of DoD Components to address tough or acute challenges, when necessary.” Basically, it is a coordinating meeting that can be a rapid decisionmaking forum in case of crisis. If confined to an information-sharing, coordination mechanism, the council likely will become just another meeting, too often delegated. Leadership at the White House and DOD should be pressing for the council to become a true decisionmaking body that can shape future budgetary decisions and speed up the development and execution of an action plan.

Aside from the council, the review also briefly mentions the supply chain challenge in biodefense. It says “the bulk of production, especially for key precursor materials, has moved overseas (especially to China). Subsequently, in many cases, domestic production has dwindled to a single supplier.” Most likely, encouraging diversified production will be a focus of the new structure. 


While the BPR is heavy on buzzwords, its most important message is clear: DOD leadership understands that the biothreat is real and urgent, the entire environment surrounding biothreats has become far more complicated and dangerous, and the defense enterprise urgently needs a reformed structure and renewed energy to meet it. There is a line of particularly harsh criticism, for a formal, public review: “the BPR revealed that DoD has a disorganized and diffused approach to supporting broader interagency and international biodefense activities.” That’s a second stark warning, particularly in light of the growing scale of the threat. Silos within DOD are no longer tolerable. Such disorganization can be bureaucratically annoying in the best of times, but deadly in the face of a global pandemic. Even worse: if PRC bioengineering efforts are both effective and designed with malicious intent, a disorganized DOD could be disastrous.

Emily Harding is the deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the CSIS Global Health Policy Center.

Emily Harding
Director, Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program and Deputy Director, International Security Program