Bio Break

Electron microscopic image of the 1976 isolate of Ebola virus. Photo by CDC on Unsplash

As bio risks rise, the Pentagon publishes its first-ever Biodefense Posture Review

Few global systemic risks get the blood as flowing metaphorically and literally as bioweapons and pandemics. It’s the intersectional nightmare of popular culture (Planet of the Apes, Contagion, Train to Busan, I Am Legend) and Langley’s most astute prognosticators. Part of their allure for filmmakers (and the intensity of the fear for security analysts) is their inherent craftiness. A nuclear weapon, despite immense radiological and fire damage, is ultimately a really, really big bomb, but a virus — that’s omnipresent, impossible to see with the human eye, and dastardly hard to stop once it gets going.

Covid-19 centered the world’s fleeting attention on systemic pandemic risk, but it’s a risk that unfortunately continues to expand in scope and danger.

Why? First and foremost, multiple countries — most notably North Korea, China, Russia and Iran — continue to actively pursue offensive bioweapons programs or are believed to have such programs available for activation. Biological weapons were banned with the signing of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, but adherence to its protocols is most definitely not uniform around the world.

Access to samples of deadly pathogens as well as sophisticated laboratory tools continues to expand around the world as more and more countries develop and devote resources to health and the biological sciences. That makes it easier for mistakes (“lab leaks”) to occur even with the most robust safeguards, and also expands the number of targets for the intentional theft of these potentially potent weapons.

Perhaps most ominously, climate change is increasing biological and pandemic risks in a multitude of ways. Greater heat can amplify the spread of pathogens, human migration is increasingly expanding the scope of local and regional outbreaks, and human population growth into formerly wild areas of the world are creating new interfaces between undiscovered diseases and humans. In the most imaginative frontiers, the melting of permafrost is unearthing fossils and remnants of the past, which some analysts fear could release and spread ancient diseases that human immune systems have long since forgotten how to fight.

Unlike most threats that America’s armed forces confront, pandemics are undirected, exponentially growing, and require vast coordination across bureaucratic and national borders as well as civilian and military leaders to combat. There is no concept of “front lines” and “behind the lines” — every person can potentially be exposed and become a vector for transmission, which adds profound complexity to defense planning.

The Pentagon has struggled to shore up its approach to these growing risks even after it accelerated action in the wake of Covid-19. To that end, last week the Department of Defense released its first-ever Biodefense Posture Review, an initiative that is designed to evaluate how the objectives published in the White House’s National Biodefense Strategy from October 2022 connects with the department’s own performance and future planning.

The Pentagon describes it’s chief challenge: “The revealed that, although DoD possesses the necessary authorities for biodefense, it could benefit from a more collective and unified approach to coordinating its biodefense roles and responsibilities due to the decentralized nature of the biodefense enterprise…” Later, the review notes, “DoD is not sufficiently engaging with interagency partners and allies and partners to build global biodefense capabilities, enhance posture, maximize interoperability, and strengthen campaigning.”

Not exactly revelatory, but the review does set the parameters for some of the risk complexities that come out of bio.

One of those is simply the element of surprise. Pandemics can arrive from anywhere and can act vastly different from one outbreak to the next. As the review notes, “The future threat landscape requires moving beyond the historical ‘threat list’ approach for capability development to more effectively and rapidly respond to biothreats (naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate).” In other words, the Pentagon can’t just be looking for signs of Ebola or Marburg, but instead must have pandemic surveillance systems designed to catch subtle changes in a population’s health that might indicate the arrival of a known disease — or something new entirely.

There are more complexities though, even if better information processing is implemented. The review notes that more work needs to be done to train staff on how to deal with biothreats (whether natural or man-made) that are coupled with foreign disinformation campaigns. Covid-19 highlighted both the polarization around public health in the United States and elsewhere, as well as the ability of overseas influence operations to sow general discord. The review emphasizes the need to develop “best practices to separate the truth from fiction” (probably a good bumper sticker for most of government).

A less surprising observation is that America has a deep dependency on China for critical bio and health products. What’s more surprising though is that the Pentagon seems to be increasingly understanding how challenging the business environment is to fulfill the Department of Defense’s needs:

For example, 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. Resultantly, investors increasingly find investing in the domestic biodefense sector unattractive, which further erodes the infrastructure needed to support DoD requirements. Additionally, the production workforce has shifted, leaving a dearth of talent in the United States. Compared to the global market, DoD’s unique biodefense demands are small and not commercially competitive.

That’s heartening to hear, because far too often, the Pentagon and its backers can sound almost hysterical about the lack of business support for the defense mission. Businesses rely on sound economics — and large swaths of Pentagon procurement are unsound, particularly in emerging technologies.

Finally, one nice intersection with the work we are doing with the Lux Riskgaming Initiative was highlighted by the review, which “acknowledged the value of table-top exercises as key contributors to integrated risk assessments across the biodefense space.” Given the complexity of the subject, bringing a wide variety of stakeholders around the table to comprehend and take action on difficult scenarios is an invaluable medium for building capacity and talent.

It’s excellent news that the Defense Department is building up its capabilities against viruses and other pathogens. Yet, so much more needs to be done, both internally and across the whole of government. Particularly in the United States, where public health agencies tend to concentrate at the county level of government, that coordination problem remains profoundly challenging. It shouldn’t take 2-3 pandemics to get us ready for the next one; instead, let’s try to build the systems we know we need to prevent them before they spread.

Video: The Terrifying Fusion: AI, Bioweapons, and the Future of Warfare

Design by Chris Gates
Design by Chris Gates

In fortuitous timing, the Pentagon’s Biodefense Posture Review was published at almost the exact same time as our most recent “Securities” video, which is focused on the dual-use challenges of AI/ML tools in biochemistry. These new products offer incredible opportunities to advance human health, but also potentially add new pathways for bad actors to build more lethal and more hidden weapons programs.

It’s easy to look at this risk and just assume everything leads to dystopia, but the reality is quite a bit more complicated. Given that there are already extremely virulent bioweapons and lethal chemical weapons available, what more can AI do? And what other capabilities does AI offer that could transform the threat environment? Watch the video and learn more, and also check out last year’s “Securities” issue, “AI, dual-use medicine, and bioweapons.”

🎬 Watch the video on YouTube

Generative AI has enhanced cybersecurity weapons, but defenders can still claim a lot of value

Our summer associate Yadin Arnon combed through the cybersecurity industry, where investor focus has intensified amidst the rapid rise of generative AI. Yadin wrote up his analysis on the market for us, before heading back to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for the second year of his MBA.

For many adversaries, especially the financially-motivated ones, hacking is a numbers game. With tools that dramatically speed up malicious campaigns, the time to exploit a target is narrowing. So what can we do?

Fortunately, this revolution in AI leaves plenty of room for security innovation across the entire attack surface, with different types of assistants and platforms offering intelligent alerting and attack prevention. I believe that the following five areas in cyber have the largest opportunity to produce cutting-edge novelty in the age of growing threats leveraging machine learning and generative AI: 1) workforce security, 2) AI model security, 3) identity and access management, 4) software supply chain security and 5) security operations.

Lux Recommends

  • Congratulations to the scientists and engineers behind Chandrayaan-3, India’s spacecraft which successfully landed on the moon’s south pole. India is the first nation to reach this region — which is theorized to hold frozen water — and is only the fourth nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon (the others are the United States, Russia and China).
  • Tess Van Stekelenburg highlights a new Nature review article by a group of researchers who explore "Scientific discovery in the age of artificial intelligence.” “Using Al for scientific innovation and discovery presents unique challenges compared with other areas of human endeavour where AI is utilized. One of the biggest challenges is the vastness of hypothesis spaces in scientific problems, making systematic exploration infeasible. For instance, in biochemistry, an estimated 1060 drug-like molecules exist to explore.”
  • Grace Isford points to SemiAnalysis editor Dylan Patel’s analysis of Nvidia (which had a blockbuster quarter of earnings for those who missed it). In Dylan’s post, "Nvidia’s Ramp – Volume, ASP, Cloud Pricing, Margins, EPS, Cashflow, China, Competition,” he highlights the performance difference between Nvidia and competitors. “For example, Super Micro disappointed lofty expectations after a >300% share price run-up this year with revenue guidance for the next quarter being flat. Their ramp in AI revenue isn’t being shown by them or many other AI head-fakes and it is violating the AI ramp narrative.”
  • Our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman recommends a fascinating research article that claims to show that people who seek out genetic tests have a genetic predisposition to do so.
  • Finally, MIT professor Yasheng Huang writes a fascinating argument in “How to Kill Chinese Dynamism” on the importance of liberal Hong Kong for mainland China’s economic development. With the recent political clampdown on the city’s freedoms, China’s growth has now stalled. “Those who believe that Chinese entrepreneurship somehow thrived under a magical formula of statism thus ignore the role that Hong Kong – and a number of other overseas domiciles – played in providing the conventional pillars of innovation-driven economic growth.”

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.