West Point provides indepth bio threat analysis for Army

By Maj. Renee Sanjuan USMA Associate Dean for Policy and Communications - July 20, 2022
The Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Chemistry and Life Science at West Point have assembled some of the best and brightest thinkers in the counterterrorism, policy and scientific communities around the world to provide analysis on the evolution of the biological threat picture. (Photo by Christopher Hennen/USMA PAO)

In a joint effort, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) and the Department of Chemistry and Life Science (CLS) at West Point have assembled some of the best and brightest thinkers in the counterterrorism, policy and scientific communities around the world for their perspectives and analysis on the evolution of the biological threat picture.” — Paul Cruickshank, Combat Terrorism Center Sentinel Editor-in-Chief. 

An elite Army unit turned to West Point to provide both broad and indepth analysis on biological threats, which resulted in a multidisciplinary two-volume set of special issues published in the April and May CTC Sentinel issues.

To fully analyze this complex threat, the Department of Social Sciences’ Combating Terrorism Center sought insights from Col. John Burpo, head of the Department of Chemistry and Life Science, and members of his team. They collaborated on the best strategy, topics and authors to effectively examine the biological threat — and the article review process.

For example, the April cover article (https://ctc.westpoint.edu/a-new-age-of-bioterror-anticipating-exploitat…) was co-authored by several current and former CLS faculty members. Informed by deep scientific knowledge, the authors consider the theoretical potential for bioterrorists to select a viral platform and genetically modify viral transmissibility.

These articles provide a collective approach to analyzing such a complex threat. 

Audrey Kurth Cronin, distinguished professor of International Security and founding director of the Center for Security, Innovation and New Technology at American University, wrote that “the old threats of bioterrorism remain, but they’re joined by new ones that are falling between the seams of biology and other disciplines, especially engineering, data science, computer science and especially at the intersection between molecular biology and artificial intelligence.”

Jaime Yasif, vice president of Global Biological Policy and Programs for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, also explained that in biosecurity, there is no single solution or intervention that can eliminate all risk. That is why a layered defense is needed, in which multiple interventions in aggregate add up to substantial risk reduction.”

The two-issue series provides a layered analysis. 

“The collaborative partnership between the CTC and CLS was both rewarding and important,ˮ Burpo said. “The interdisciplinary synergy at West Point, like this partnership, is what makes it possible to effectively translate experience and expertise from the lab benchtop to the operational battlespace. This double issue was a great team-of-teams effort.”

The balance between technological advancements and defending our nation is complex, said Brad Ringeisen, Innovative Genomics Institute executive director, as he explored this complexity. 

“We have to use this technology to help society,” Ringeisen said. “The question then is, how do we use it safely? How do we try to set up the guardrails to be able to use it safely?” 

Drawing on in-house expertise and gathering globally renowned leaders in their fields, these special issues merged the intersection of science, policy and terrorism to address such questions. Questions remain, but these issues provide an extensive review of the fundamental challenges we face. 

As author Cronin notes, “the future of understanding these threats is interdisciplinary — and that’s what West Point delivers.”

The CTC Sentinel is a monthly, independent publication that leverages the Center’s network of scholars and practitioners to understand and confront contemporary terrorism threats. Read the CTC Sentinel issues here: https://ctc.westpoint.edu/ctc-sentinel/

(Editor's note: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point educates, advises and conducts research to equip present and future leaders with the intellectual tools necessary to understand the challenges of terrorism and counterterrorism. Learn more about West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center at https://bit.ly/WP_CTC)