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I’m very, very concerned that North Korea today has an advanced biological weapons program. You don’t need a lot of biological weapons to potentially kill billions of people … Fortunately, while we’re not there yet, the science and the tools that are now available enable the possibility of making bioweapons obsolete.

Andy Weber

COVID-19 has provided a vivid reminder of the damage biological threats can do. But the threat doesn’t come from natural sources alone. Weaponized contagious diseases — which were abandoned by the United States, but developed in large numbers by the Soviet Union, right up until its collapse — have the potential to spread globally and kill just as many as an all-out nuclear war.

For five years, today’s guest, Andy Weber, was the US’ Assistant Secretary of Defense responsible for biological and other weapons of mass destruction. While people primarily associate the Pentagon with waging wars (including most within the Pentagon itself) Andy is quick to point out that you don’t have national security if your population remains at grave risk from natural and lab-created diseases.

Andy’s current mission is to spread the word that while bioweapons are terrifying, scientific advances also leave them on the verge of becoming an outdated technology.

He thinks there is an overwhelming case to increase our investment in two new technologies that could dramatically reduce the risk of bioweapons, and end natural pandemics in the process: mass genetic sequencing and mRNA vaccines.

First, advances in mass genetic sequencing technology allow direct, real-time analysis of DNA or RNA fragments collected from all over the human environment. You cast a wide net, and if you start seeing DNA sequences that you don’t recognise spreading through the population — that can set off an alarm.

Andy notes that while the necessary desktop sequencers may be expensive enough that they’re only in hospitals today, they’re rapidly getting smaller, cheaper, and easier to use. In fact DNA sequencing has recently experienced the most dramatic cost decrease of any technology, declining by a factor of 10,000 since 2007. It’s only a matter of time before they’re cheap enough to put in every home.

In the world Andy envisions, each morning before you brush your teeth you also breathe into a tube. Your sequencer can tell you if you have any of 300 known pathogens, while simultaneously scanning for any unknown viruses. It’s hooked up to your WiFi and reports into a public health surveillance system, which can check to see whether any novel DNA sequences are being passed from person to person. New contagious diseases can be detected and investigated within days — long before they run out of control.

The second major breakthrough comes from mRNA vaccines, which are today being used to end the COVID pandemic. The wonder of mRNA vaccines is that they can instruct our cells to make any random protein we choose and trigger a protective immune response from the body.

Until now it has taken a long time to invent and test any new vaccine, and there was then a laborious process of scaling up the equipment necessary to manufacture it. That leaves a new disease or bioweapon months or years to wreak havoc.

But using the sequencing technology above, we can quickly get the genetic codes that correspond to the surface proteins of any new pathogen, and switch them into the mRNA vaccines we’re already making. Inventing a new vaccine would become less like manufacturing a new iPhone and more like printing a new book — you use the same printing press and just change the words.

So long as we maintained enough capacity to manufacture and deliver mRNA vaccines, a whole country could in principle be vaccinated against a new disease in months.

Together these technologies could make advanced bioweapons a threat of the past. And in the process humanity’s oldest and deadliest enemy — contagious disease — could be brought under control like never before.

Andy has always been pretty open and honest, but his retirement last year has allowed him to stop worrying about being seen to speak for the Department of Defense, or for the president of the United States – and so we were also able to get his forthright views on a bunch of interesting other topics, such as:

  • The chances that COVID-19 escaped from a research facility
  • Whether a US president can really truly launch nuclear weapons unilaterally
  • What he thinks should be the top priorities for the Biden administration
  • If Andy was 18 and starting his career over again today, what would his plan be?
  • The time he and colleagues found 600kg of unsecured, highly enriched uranium sitting around in a barely secured facility in Kazakhstan, and eventually transported it to the United States
  • And much more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: Type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel


Project Sapphire

Andy Weber: So it started when my auto mechanic asked me — he knew I worked at the embassy — he asked me one day if I was interested in buying some uranium. And at that time, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, I was recently assigned to our embassy in this new country of Kazakhstan, in the original capital of Almaty, and anything was possible, strange things were happening at that time. So I didn’t just dismiss it out of hand. And I spent several months following up on that initial lead.

And frankly, there was a lot of disbelief when I reported this back to Washington. But over time we were able to verify that indeed they had over 600 kg of 90% enriched uranium sitting at a warehouse in northeastern Kazakhstan.

We were concerned about Iran having an enrichment capability, which is a large industrial capability. But had they bought this material, they would have enough for several dozen bombs right away. They wouldn’t have to go through the process of enriching uranium. This was directly weapons-usable material.

There were a lot of risks [in getting it out]. I think the biggest risk we felt was that if we lost the secrecy, then the material would become vulnerable. Especially when we have people on the ground packaging the material. We didn’t want the bad guys — whether it’s organised crime, or operatives from other countries — to know that we were loading this material, which was definitely most vulnerable when it was mobile, when it was loaded onto trucks, in preparation for the convoy to the airport.

How did the Nunn-Lugar program succeed?

Andy Weber: Well, this is a prevention program, right? And so you don’t get credit for the catastrophe that didn’t happen, but it is an extraordinary story. I mean, it was the vision of Senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn that created this program, gave it to the Pentagon to run, and then at first the Pentagon was a little reluctant to be involved in working with Russia on this problem. But the reason it was so successful, indeed, the genius of this program, was that it facilitated work directly with the custodians of these weapons and materials.

There were some negotiations in the capital with the foreign ministry, but for the most part, we worked in very remote locations at these WMD facilities and bases throughout Russia and the neighboring countries, directly with the engineers and the security forces who guarded them and the people who felt a responsibility to protect them. So that was the genius, and that’s why we were so successful, because it was a full partnership with our counterparts in those countries.

Bioweapons programs

Andy Weber: Bioweapons — developed during the Cold War by the United States until Nixon canceled our program in 1969, and then the Soviet Union right up until the collapse — were potentially equally devastating to nuclear weapons. They were called the ‘poor man’s atomic bomb.’ It’s easier for a country to develop biological weapons than it is to develop nuclear weapons — it’s essentially the use of infectious disease as a weapon. And this could be devastating. There are different types of diseases with different effects, but the ability to deliver them against a population or on a battlefield or to an individual makes them really an insidious type of weapon.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the primary threat came from the Soviet Union. They grew their program, and when the ink was drying in 1975 on the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, that’s when they upped their investment in this program, knowing that the United States no longer had one. They sought an advantage. At one point they had about 50 or 60 facilities working on their biological weapons program, 40,000 or 50,000 scientists and engineers. It was a massive, massive effort, and thankfully they never used them.

The threat is different today, but it’s probably greater. And I say that because the technology has advanced, and the Soviet program applied sort of rudimentary molecular biology in ways to make viruses and bacteria more effective as weapons. But now the tools are much easier to use, more precise. So you can enhance the virulence, the transmissibility, the environmental hardiness of pathogens in a way that just wasn’t possible back then. So I’m very, very concerned today that especially North Korea — which we know a lot about their missile and nuclear weapons programs, they have an advanced biological weapons program. I’m concerned that Russia still continues elements of its biological weapons program. It’s on a much smaller scale, but you don’t need a lot of biological weapons to kill potentially billions of people.

The advances in technology that could stop bioweapons and natural pandemics

Andy Weber: So it starts with early warning. So think about some of the revolution in diagnostics and testing that’s been happening because of COVID. So imagine in-home testing, every morning when you’re brushing your teeth, you breathe into a tube and you know if you’re infected with a virus and it tells you which one. That’s sort of the early detection that’s now possible. You might have it hooked up to your smartphone and it would report into a public health surveillance system. And so you would know if it’s just an isolated individual or if it’s spreading into the community.

So that early warning piece. And then sequencing is becoming so cheap and fast that within 24 hours, you can determine if a person has a respiratory illness, for example. You can test through sequencing for 300 different pathogens, as well as virus X, the unknown, the novel. And those are the sorts of capabilities that we need in order to have that weather map, that prediction of infectious disease outbreaks that allows us to nip them in the bud.

Look at the example of how a Chinese laboratory posted the SARS-CoV-2 sequence I believe on January 11th, and within days, a DARPA-supported company in Boston called Moderna developed this mRNA vaccine prototype. And then it was in phase I trials, just a little over a month later. So using sequences, we can have what I call rapid medical countermeasures — therapeutics and vaccines that are based on the sequence of the pathogen and can be developed and then manufactured quickly. Think sort of nucleic acid 3D printers that could use this digital information — because biology is now digital — and develop and produce these vaccines in a distributed way. So we would, as soon as even a novel or previously unknown pathogen were released, we would in days — or a month at the most — have a countermeasure we can apply to preventing it. So these are the capabilities that while even 10 or 15 years ago may have seemed like science fiction, today they’re upon us. But we need to invest in this overall system of defenses.

Top nuclear security priorities for the Biden administration

Andy Weber: I think that the goal of arms control should be to enhance U.S. security, mutual security, and global security. It’s not some, you know, Pollyanna-ish disarmament thing. It is focused on enhancing our national security, and other countries will have that same selfish interest in enhancing their national security. So the goals should be first and foremost to reduce the risk of nuclear war. And what is it that makes the risk of nuclear war high? I think it’s these smaller, so-called ‘low-yield’ systems on ambiguous delivery platforms, like cruise missiles that are used for conventional weapons and nuclear weapons. It’s these smaller, more tactical systems that are the most dangerous type of nuclear weapon. And so we should focus on eliminating both bilaterally and perhaps among all nuclear weapon possessor states, these most dangerous types of nuclear weapons.

We used to have a bright red line between nuclear operations and conventional operations. Well, there’s been an intentional blurring of the line between conventional and nuclear war. And that is very, very dangerous. They had something that started with president Putin’s policies on nuclear weapons, but then was mimicked by the Trump Administration. So we need to walk away from that concept. Indeed, it’s this very same danger that presidents Reagan and Gorbachev focused on when they adopted the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. It was those smaller systems with short flight times that could be used in Europe that the treaty focused on, including ground-launch cruise missiles, which fly low, they’re undetectable. Their missiles are slow, quiet, low to the ground and stealthy — unlike ballistic missiles, which have a big signature upon launch, and your early warning systems can detect them. So those are the ones that I believe are most likely to cause a nuclear war.

If Andy was 18 and starting his career over again today, what would his plan be?

Andy Weber: I’ve had such a privileged career and I continue to be able to work on these issues that I’m so passionate about. I don’t think I would really change anything, but the 21st century is definitely going to be the century of biology. If the 20th century was the nuclear age, the 21st century is going to be the century of biology. So I would be so excited to be involved in biotechnology, bioengineering as a field, because so many things, so many things are going to be done to improve our lives, whether it’s environmental issues, climate issues… biology will answer so many of those problems for us. Now that it’s progressed, it’s going to be just the largest growth sector of our economy moving forward. We have a term in Washington, we referred to it as the ‘bioeconomy,’ and it’s going to be everything from nutrition, to meat substitutes, to energy solutions, to better batteries…in addition to all the medical countermeasures, so we can live free of disease. So that’s an area that, having to do all over again, I might get involved in the biological sciences.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Andy’s photos

Andy’s writing


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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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