It’s not clear what led to the increased focus on the risks of Covid-19 weaponization—for example, whether officials received intelligence indicating a heightened threat. A Defense official said the weaponization risk still “seems to be a lower-risk concern,” with the primary questions revolving around the virus’ origins and what the Chinese government knew about it early on.
But former senior Pentagon officials said that a coordinated planning effort is typically implemented for any particular threat vector, including the potential deployment of a bioweapon, and that the threats posed by the novel coronavirus should not be any different.
“A bioweapon isn’t something that looks like a munition — it’s just a pathogen,” said Andy Weber, who served as assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs under President Obama. “In its natural state, the current virus could be used as a bioweapon by less sophisticated groups. Or, for a nation-state with a more advanced biological weapons program, this virus could be given enhanced characteristics.” And it could be spread using easily accessible tools like a fogger or a spray bottle, he said.
Another former administration official said that a hostile actor wishing to weaponize the novel coronavirus likely would not manipulate the virus itself, as that would leave a signature. The bad actor would more likely infect someone with the natural virus, and have that person spread it in areas frequented by individuals they want to target.
The rapid spread of Covid-19 among the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt shows the danger: An outbreak of the virus has temporarily crippled the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the middle of a Pacific deployment, knocking it out of service for weeks, infecting the ship’s captain and spawning a crisis that has rippled all the way up the Navy chain of command.
Senior Navy leaders still don’t know where the outbreak originated — they initially believed sailors brought it onboard during a port call to Vietnam, but now think the air crew may have infected the ship during routine resupply flights. But the incident highlights the military’s vulnerability to the asymmetric threat a weaponized virus could pose.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has taken drastic steps to ensure the military’s deployed forces are Covid-free. In March, he issued a 60-day moratorium on all international and domestic troop travel, delaying deployments and temporary duty assignments. Service members deploying overseas or coming home must do some form of 14-day quarantine. This includes submarine crews and special operations units.
But Esper has also acknowledged the limitations. “Tell me, how do I do six-feet distancing in an attack submarine?” he asked reporters in March. “Or how do I do that in a bomber with two pilots sitting side by side?”
Weber, now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, noted that the risk of coronavirus being repurposed as an offensive weapon increases as more is learned about the disease, which is likely one reason why the national security community has begun to take the possibility seriously. “In terms of bioterrorism, Covid is very accessible,” he said. “Samples are available all over the world.”
Another former senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity to discuss bioweapon response efforts, said they would typically involve “engaging with allies and partners to talk about either a real or a potential threat vector, the targeting of individual officials of significance across key countries” and Defense Department force protection. Operational options would then be considered and gamed out, the official said.
Biodefense experts say the risk of Covid-19 being weaponized on a large scale is low given its highly infectious nature that would likely backfire on any group trying to spread it. But that hasn’t stopped bad actors from trying, according to a warning the FBI sent local police agencies last month: “Members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions,” read a bulletin to law enforcement obtained by ABC.
Separately, an administration official told POLITICO last month that the prospect of intentional exposure targeting U.S. government employees “is a concern,” and noted that the Defense Department “has imposed a lot of travel restrictions” despite a certain amount of exposure being “inevitable.”
“Adversaries only have to observe the havoc that this pandemic is wreaking to know that if they wanted to launch a bio attack, it could do a lot of damage,” said Weber. “It also provides the added benefit of some plausible deniability. There is obviously the potential blowback on your own population — but depending on the adversary, they may just not care.”