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Structuring Biodefense: Legacies and Current Policy Choices

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Policies are usually initiated in response to specific circumstances, but they do not become effective unless they are embedded in operating institutions. Understanding the historical process through which policies evolve is essential for assessing their character and their consequence. This study is a detailed history of the US bioweapons program from its inception to the present. It is an original analysis based on archival documents and scientific reports. The issue is, does the application of national security measures such as the classification of scientific programs improve biodefense?


Initial organization of the US bioweapons program as a secret, military program that performed threat assessment work (1941-1969) led to the development and stockpiling of biological weapons for deterrence, but few medical defenses. A strategic review in 1969 concluded that bioweapons were not useful for legitimate military missions and did not enhance US deterrence. It also concluded that proliferation threatened the US. To reduce proliferation, the US destroyed its bioweapons arsenal and enforced the norm against bioweapons acquisition by signing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972. Subsequent organization of the US biodefense program was as an unclassified military medical research program. This work at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) improved medical countermeasures without a concomitant classified, offensive program. However, in response to the terrorist attacks of 2001, the US is again imposing secrecy over important aspects of its biodefense work, including its threat assessment work. Based on the analysis here, current policy will increase the risk to US security by both enlarging the threat space and reducing defensive options.