American counterterrorism experts’ biggest fear remains a biological weapons attack in the United States. A conventional bomb can kill hundreds or even thousands, but a biological weapon can surreptitiously invade, spread, mutate, and kill millions. Biological weapons have been used throughout history, from poisoning wells to “gifting” smallpox-infected blankets. Whether you believe that Covid-19 came from bats sold in a wet market or escaped from a Chinese lab, terrorists are observing the pandemic’s toll on America and taking notes for a future biological attack. What lessons might they have learned from America’s reaction to Covid?
The first is that America is unprepared for a biological attack. Our national defense experts tend to look backward to past threats rather than preparing for future ones. The U.S. botched the response to swine flu under the Obama administration, avoiding a damaging experience only through some good luck, but still failed to engage in research to address future threats. Terrorists can plan on the nation not having a ready-made response to any tailor-made virus.
The next lesson: America does not affirmatively defend itself from biological threats. We train our police to respond to active shooters in schools. We take off our shoes for scanning before we get on planes. But we do not regularly monitor wastewater supplies for the presence of new and dangerous pathogens. Only now are some local governments discovering that they can track Covid outbreaks by testing wastewater. We also leave our water supply wide open to attacks; ten terrorists in ten cities adding a highly infectious virus to the water supply would have a devastating nationwide impact.
The pandemic has revealed that America’s investigative capabilities—scientific and military—are either fragile or fainthearted. Two years in, we still have no definitive answers about the origin of Covid. Nor do we appear to be pressing China particularly hard for an explanation. Tracing biological weapons is difficult unless you act quickly, competently, and decisively.
Terrorists also learned that politics is corrupting our scientific organizations. From federal agencies to private universities, ideology is distorting science. When science is filtered through the lens of politics, nobody is likely to have much respect for empirical fact-finding. Thus, mixed public-health messaging eventually leads sensible people to the conclusion that some scientists refuse to admit their own ignorance.
America’s political polarization has taught terrorists that our divisiveness will prevent any immediate and unified response to a biological attack. Many Democrats expressed doubt about Covid vaccines when Donald Trump was in the White House. When President Biden took office, some Republicans began questioning the vaccines. Some states demand vaccines and masks everywhere; some leave it to individual choice. The politicization of science, egged on by the mainstream media, has reduced public trust.
Covid also taught terrorists that American supply chains for critical materials are weak, fractured, and often reliant on materials from outside the United States. Necessary supplies for vaccines, tests, and medical items come from other countries, forcing the nation to face shortages of items critical to our medical defenses. For instance, the United States struggled with a shortage of Covid testing kits. Over 50 percent of those kits are manufactured in China.
Finally, potential bioterrorists have learned that Americans are physically vulnerable to a biological attack. Our borders are porous. Our population is exceptionally obese and unfit. Particularly in dense urban areas, this lack of physical vitality makes an inviting target for weaponized viruses. The coronavirus took a disproportionately heavy toll on obese Americans. If you’re a terrorist designing a virus, this is hard information to ignore.
Yet some good news remains. The United States retains the ability to innovate quickly: through Operation Warp Speed, American pharmaceutical companies performed a miracle in creating and mass-producing vaccines in an incredibly short time frame. Not since the nation geared up for World War II have we seen such a concerted effort to achieve a singular result. And Americans remain a strong, independent-minded people. Even as the government bungled an economic response to the pandemic, markets rebounded. The American public has awakened to the fact that its leaders and the media might not be fully trustworthy or competent, so the age-old national tradition of questioning authority has returned with vigor.
Last, any terrorist planning a biological attack on the U.S. will have to deal with the reality that Covid has acted as a national stress test. Somewhere in the depths of American law enforcement, agents, prosecutors, and scientists are considering the strategic implications of what we have been through in recent years. They are running models, preparing new approaches and defenses, and learning new lessons. With hard work and luck, they will have solutions in place if and when such a threat emerges.