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The U.S. Spent Billions of Dollars on Biodefense. COVID-19 Was the Attack it Never Saw Coming

7 minute read

Atop high-rise government buildings and inside critical military installations across the country, you’ll find high-tech sensor systems installed to sniff the air in search of any hint of dangerous bacteria, viruses or toxins that might be dispersed in an airborne attack. The detection devices, part of a multi-faceted $100 billion federal effort to bolster the nation’s biological defenses, were installed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

None of them, however, saw the coronavirus coming. Despite the piles of money, gee-whiz gadgetry and high-minded strategy that’s been thrown at the biodefense effort in the last 20 years, officials in the highest reaches of the U.S. government and military have found themselves hobbled by a deadly disease that has been passed around at federal locations with the highest security protocols. It’s a plot line that America’s adversaries could only dream of — and a red flag that U.S. government and military remain vulnerable to biological threats, whether they are natural, accidental or intentional.

The Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that Gen. Gary Thomas, the Marine Corps’ No. 2 officer, became the second four-star military officer tested positive for COVID-19. Thomas was one of several senior officers present last week at a Pentagon meeting with Adm. Charles Ray, the Coast Guard’s No. 2 officer. Ray tested positive Monday after attending a Sept. 27 reception at the White House in honor of military families.

The remaining seven officers who attended the meeting with Ray have thus far tested negative and show no signs of COVID-19 symptoms, but they remain in self-quarantine, according to Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman. “We will continue to follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining and contact tracing,” Hoffman said.

The infections follow the revelations that President Donald Trump and more than a dozen high-ranking officials, including three Republican Senators, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, have all tested positive.

The irony of the debacle, which experts say poses a risk to U.S. national security, is that the chain-reaction would’ve been blunted if people had worn a $1 surgeon’s mask, says Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. Defense Secretary and Republican Senator from Nebraska. Trump has “politicized this virus,” Hagel tells TIME. “If you wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, it’s a political statement because the President has made it that way. Now we’re seeing a price is being paid by some of his senior staff.”

The White House’s careless behavior that may have exposed senior Pentagon leaders to the virus shows how vulnerable they could be to a biological weapons attack by U.S. adversaries, says Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs in the Obama Administration. “If a natural virus can do this, imagine what a deliberate attack would do?” he says. The biological agents used as weapons, he notes, are both “faster acting and more lethal than coronavirus.”

The Pentagon has a system of sensors, so-called Triggered Cellular Analysis and Notification of Antigen Risks and Yields, or TCANARY, that are arrayed inside buildings to detect releases of weapons like ricin, anthrax, Ebola, and other lesser known agents, simply identified by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as “material threats.”

But they are not calibrated to look for a naturally occurring virus, says Weber. The developments of the last week have made it evident that’s a shortcoming. “It’s not enough to focus on a list of known threat agents. We have to look also at natural diseases too that could be quickly delivered,” he says.

It’s not like the U.S. government hasn’t been throwing money at the problem. Over the past two decades, the U.S. spent at least $100 billion on biodefense and biosecurity, says Crystal Watson, a former DHS program manager for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear terrorism risk assessment. It’s difficult to say exactly how much has been spent over the years because the funding is peppered across a handful of federal agencies, and the government doesn’t track it.

The only organization that has kept an eye on the money on an annual basis is Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, where Watson is now a senior scholar. The money has often been spent on newfangled technology and systems, but the U.S. government — over multiple administrations — hasn’t prioritized pandemic preparedness, Watson says. Typically, the flow of funding for hospitals and public health departments only comes after a crisis has started. “What we’re seeing now is that the underlying infrastructure of our public health system really needs to be bolstered,” she says.

The warning signs that America was unprepared for a pandemic have been blinking red for more than a decade, as Congressional hearings, table-top exercises and think-tank studies showed that the U.S. healthcare system wasn’t ready. The disease has now killed more than 212,000 Americans and sickened millions more, including the President of the United States. The pandemic has compelled quarantines and lockdowns and effectively erased all economic growth of the past two years.

“Certainly, COVID has had a great impact like a bioweapon, in terms of the disruption of daily life, impact on leadership and economy,” says Mark G. Kortepeter, a retired Army colonel who served as deputy commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. “It has had a greater impact than we saw with an actual release of a bioweapon like anthrax.”

The U.S. government has long managed the risk of biological threats, whether naturally occurring diseases, accidents involving dangerous pathogens, or deliberate attacks using biological agents. In the 2001 deadly anthrax attacks, five Americans were killed and more than a dozen fell ill after a deadly bacteria was circulated in letters in the U.S. postal system. The incident showed the need to coordinate prevention and response activities to these kinds of events, says Daniel Gerstein, former deputy undersecretary for science and technology at DHS who’s now a senior policy researcher with the think tank Rand Corp. “A lot of the diseases we worried about are not just biological weapons,” he says. “But we’ve never had our hands around COVID-19. And we’ve never really been able to deal with it.”

In 2014, an independent, bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense was convened to study ways to improve America’s biodefenses. The panel, chaired by Tom Ridge, the nation’s first DHS secretary and Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic Senator from Connecticut, found that biological threats—whether they occur naturally, accidentally or intentionally—had the potential to cause mass loss of life and unrelenting damage to the economy, societal stability, and global security. In 2016, they issued 87 recommendations to the Trump Administration for improving America’s biodefenses.

“The government spends billions of taxpayer dollars every year on programs that may — or may not — work to prevent biological catastrophe,” they wrote in a 2018 op-ed published by The Hill. “No one really knows how much we spend, or whether the multitude of efforts are effective or wasteful.”

Lieberman and Ridge called on Trump to streamline and coordinate government efforts before the nation was blindsided. “Some of the biggest threats to the nation come from the smallest organisms on the planet,” they wrote. “Money spent strategically now could save millions of lives and billions of dollars in the long term.”

Later that same year, Trump disbanded a National Security Council unit focused on pandemic preparedness, which critics say left a leadership vacuum in global health security at the White House that to this day remains unfilled.

—With reporting by Kim Dozier/Washington

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com