Why Are We Still Reliant on China for Our Biosecurity?


This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire

By Matthew Turpin
Real Clear Wire

The reports out of China arrived just before Thanksgiving. A surge in respiratory infections among children in the northern part of the country triggered a sense of foreboding — and Deja-vu. Meetings between the World Health Organization and Chinese officials quickly followed.

The WHO’s conclusions brought some relief. The surge was caused by an “immunity gap” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein children had few defenses against influenza and other respiratory infections after years of quarantine.

This episode should be a wake-up call for the U.S. national security establishment. We remain reliant on other nations, including countries of concern, like China, for critical intelligence needed to defend against biological dangers — whether naturally occurring, mistakenly released, or purposefully engineered.

That needs to change. It starts with expanded investment in the technological infrastructure that can monitor for and detect dangerous pathogens that could devastate our nation and economy.

Since COVID-19, we’ve all become familiar with the risk posed by novel infectious diseases with pandemic potential. Just 30,000 base pairs of RNA — roughly one one-hundred-thousandth as many as the human genome contains — managed to shut down our planet.

And, as we know from our experience with the last pandemic, time is essential to stopping the spread and minimizing danger to people. We need a strategy for the rapid identification and understanding of emerging threats, as well as timely countermeasures once a threat has been intercepted.

A sophisticated bio surveillance or “bio radar” network would include collection points where pathogens are most at risk of emerging or being identified as threats — including airports, borders, conflict zones, labs, and farms. Once bio radar systems leveraging DNA sequencing have detected a threat, we can create a digital fingerprint of the suspect pathogen’s genetic material and begin analyzing the level of risk and mitigation options. This creates true bio intelligence, or BIOINT.

Artificial intelligence tuned to biological information like this can quickly begin analyzing the data collected from bio radar systems. And by learning to “speak DNA” the way chatbots can speak English, AI has the potential to identify anomalies and quickly inform development of genomic-informed countermeasures.

Today, nodes in this bio radar network are already at work. We just need to connect the dots of this biosecurity infrastructure and expand its scale.

Take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Traveler-based Genomic Surveillance program, which swabs international travelers arriving at various international airports. In August 2023, the Dulles International Airport location outside Washington D.C. flagged a sample from a U.S. resident returning from a multi-week trip to Japan. Analysis revealed that the traveler was carrying a new SARS-CoV-2 variant. After sequencing the variant, American authorities notified their counterparts in Japan.

This same program identified the Omicron variant when it first arrived in the United States 43 days before it showed up in a clinical setting.

In other words, existing bio surveillance tools can find dangerous or novel pathogens before we would otherwise know they exist.

Acting on that information in a timely fashion could help save lives — or even eliminate outbreaks or biological threats. Despite the lag in receiving information on SARS-CoV-2 from China, it didn’t take long for scientists to develop mRNA vaccine candidates against COVID-19 that proved effective.

In its 2023 Biodefense Posture Review, the U.S. Department of Defense singles out four nations — North Korea, Russia, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China — as either having active offensive bioweapons programs or developing concerning dual-use capabilities in this area.

We should assume that countries the United States considers adversaries are already at work on genetically engineered pathogens and other violations of the Biological Weapons Convention.

And yet, public health experts have consistently downplayed biothreats. The United Nations characterizes COVID-19 as a “once-in-a-lifetime pandemic”and the New England Journal of Medicine labels it a “once-in-a-century” event.

Biothreats are a much more immediate danger. They’re potentially more catastrophic than most other risks. We build early-warning systems for hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. We build them for missile launches and the transport of nuclear material. The public and private sectors spend billions each year on cybersecurity. Why isn’t there a similar urgency about biosecurity?

There’s no time to waste in addressing this truly neglected dimension of global security. We should be building a sophisticated bio radar, bio intelligence, and biosecurity system now before the next pandemic — engineered or otherwise — is at our doorstep.

Matthew Turpin is a senior counselor at Palantir Technologies and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution specializing in U.S. policy towards the People’s Republic of China. From 2018 to 2019, Turpin served as the U.S. National Security Council’s Director for China and the Senior Advisor on China to the Secretary of Commerce.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.

The post Why Are We Still Reliant on China for Our Biosecurity? appeared first on The Gateway Pundit.

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