Has the Pandemic Increased the Likelihood of Bioterror?
Has the global disruption and widespread death caused by SARS-CoV-2 made biological pathogens a more compelling and/or attainable goal by bioterrorists?
There are differing views on this question, although all can agree that this is the last thing healthcare workers need to deal with. They just went through a pandemic marked by a lack of personal protective equipment. This was compounded by the disturbing finding that annual review of the National Strategic Stockpile of medical supplies had not been conducted since 2016, “creating a major vulnerability in our nation’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”1
As to the question, the author of one analysis noted, “viruses as deadly and disruptive as COVID-19, or potentially much worse, are going to be possible to produce in labs worldwide soon, if not right now.”2 On the other hand, a group of scientists reports that “COVID’s bolstering of terrorists’ abilities to acquire biological weapons is likely modest at best. The main potential concern is the proliferation of medical and public health resources aimed at combatting COVID and whether any of these can be reappropriated to serve bioterrorism schemes. In most cases, the answer is no. Nonetheless, new laboratories might create opportunities to steal equipment or pathogens.”3
Hospital Employee Health sought comment on this issue from Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, PhD, a professor in the biodefense program at George Mason University in Washington, DC.
“Bioweapons are extremely difficult to produce, and no terrorist group has been able to succeed on that front, primarily because bioagents are very unpredictable,” Ben Ouagrham-Gormley explains. “It takes teams of scientists with very specialized expertise to stabilize, produce, and weaponize them. That expertise is weapons specific, so general knowledge in biology would not help much.”
That said, terrorists could exploit the current environment by sowing panic through fake bioterrorism attempts, such as “white powder” letters to create fears of anthrax. Such disturbing hoaxes followed the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.
“They also may try to use more manageable agents like ricin, but those would have very limited outcomes,” Ben Ouagrham-Gormley says. “In terms of preparedness, it would be important for the healthcare system to be ready to respond to a rush of ‘worried well’ who might overwhelm hospitals and cause panic.”
This kind of event likely would be accompanied by the kind of disinformation that undermined the pandemic response. The CDC and other public health and government agencies should be working on a plan to convey reliable and timely information for the next infectious disease threat, Ben Ouagrham-Gormley advises.
George Mason’s biodefense program published a report in 2023 warning that the number of Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs is rapidly increasing due in part to a COVID-19 “building boom” worldwide.4 The report authors identified 51 BSL4 labs in operation, three under construction, and 15 planned in 27 countries.
Research to prepare for emerging viral pathogens carries the “dual use” threat of a dangerous pathogen escaping from the lab. Although unproven, the theory that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China persists. No intermediary source animal reservoir has been found. This contrasts with the finding that civet cats carried severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-1), and camels are the animal reservoir for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). There are disputed reports that some Wuhan lab workers became sick in the fall of 2019.
While conceding the origin of COVID-19 “remains uncertain,” a U.S. State Department fact sheet in 2021 gave some credence to the theory. “The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses. … Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one.”5
In 2014, laboratory pathogenic agents including anthrax, H5N1 avian flu, and — incredibly — vials of smallpox were found in unsecured areas at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.6
“Most lab incidents are caused by human error or poor oversight and inventory management,” Ben Ouagrham-Gormley says. “As the number of high-containment labs increases, so do the risks of accidental lab release due to human error. There have been several reported lab incidents in the past few years around the world due to human error or equipment defect. Some incidents may not be reported, so we don’t really have a good inventory of cases.”
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Ensuring an Effective Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise. 2021.
- Piper K. Why experts are terrified of a human-made pandemic — and what we can do to stop it. Vox. April 5, 2022.
- Ackerman GA, Kallenborn Z, Bleek PC. Why COVID probably hasn’t helped bioterrorists, despite fears. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Aug. 11, 2022.
- King’s College London. Global BioLabs Report. 2023.
- U.S. Department of State. Fact sheet: Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Jan 15, 2021.
- Evans G. CDC, NIH lab lapses with deadly agents lead to calls to halt research. Hospital Infection Control & Prevention. Sept. 1, 2014.
Has the global disruption and widespread death caused by SARS-CoV-2 made biological pathogens a more compelling and/or attainable goal by bioterrorists? There are differing views on this question, although all can agree that this is the last thing healthcare workers need to deal with.
Subscribe Now for Access
You have reached your article limit for the month. We hope you found our articles both enjoyable and insightful. For information on new subscriptions, product trials, alternative billing arrangements or group and site discounts please call 800-688-2421. We look forward to having you as a long-term member of the Relias Media community.