Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Pathogens Have the World’s Attention: The United States Should Lead a New Push Against Bioweapons

| Mar. 16, 2021

The Biden administration has an opportunity to restore the United States’ leadership role on bioweapons—but doing so will require navigating the strained U.S. relationship with China.

The novel coronavirus has demonstrated just how devastating a transmissible pathogen can be—and just how difficult to contain. After a year of pandemic spread, COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, has killed more than 2.5 million people, ravaged the global economy, and set off a cascade of social and political consequences that the world is only beginning to apprehend.

But the sobering truth is that, as deadly diseases go, the world got lucky. The global case fatality rate of COVID-19 is around two percent. One need only compare this to SARS (ten percent), smallpox (30 percent), pulmonary anthrax (80 percent), or Ebola (90 percent) to consider that the coronavirus could easily have been much, much worse. What’s more, these are all natural pathogens. The toll from a virus genetically engineered to increase transmissibility and lethality as a bioweapon could be almost inconceivable.

U.S. President Joe Biden has spoken frequently of restoring the United States’ credibility as a global leader. That task, which comes at a moment of global crisis, will require the United States to recommit to multilateral diplomacy, even while managing a dangerously deteriorating relationship with China. By acting on biosecurity—a neglected priority hiding in plain sight—Biden can make progress on all of these goals. Washington has an opportunity to lead in an era of heightened great-power competition, address the need for arms control measures that reduce the risk of biological weapons, and potentially even push China to cooperate to that end.  


There can be little doubt as to the destructive capacity of bioweapons. Indeed, the release of one, whether intentional or unintentional, could have an effect wholly comparable to that of a nuclear weapon. And a weaponized pathogen is nowhere near as difficult to produce as even the crudest nuclear device: the World Health Organization concluded in 2015 that the virus responsible for smallpox could be re-created in three months through synthetic biology, using publicly available genomes, in a process most lab technicians or undergraduate students could manage.

U.S. President Richard Nixon recognized this catastrophic potential in 1969 when he ordered the termination of the United States’ offensive biological weapons program that year, declaring that “mankind already carries in its own hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction.” His decision paved the way for the signing in 1972 of the landmark Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which bans the development, production, or stockpiling of biological agents that have no peaceful use. Today, a total of 183 countries (all but ten UN member states) are signatories.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Li, Chris and Nathan Levine.“Pathogens Have the World’s Attention: The United States Should Lead a New Push Against Bioweapons.” Foreign Affairs, March 16, 2021.

The Authors