North Korea biothreat: The cost of a biological weapons program

As reports surface that North Korea could be developing new biological weapons capabilities, the United States is set to increase the multi-billion dollar budget for one agency tasked with combating biothreats.

The president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is $3.17 billion, compared with $2.97 billion in fiscal year 2017. DARPA houses a Biological Technologies Office (BTO), created in 2014, charged with staying “ahead of the shifting technology curve by making critical, early investments in areas that cut across fields of research and enable revolutionary new capabilities for U.S. national security.” The office has also emphasized its program to outpace infectious disease. The National Interagency Confederation for Biological Research (NICBR), a consortium of eight agencies – including the Department of Defense and Health and Human Services – is another domestic biotechnology and biodefense organization.

U.S. analysts have voiced concerns about the potential for Kim Jong-un’s regime to develop a biological program capable of the wide scale production of pathogens, as first reported by The Washington Post.

The cost of maintaining an active biological weapons program is high, according to Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She said the Soviet Union spent “several billion dollars” on its program, while terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo spent about $10 million, though the latter “failed at every step.” The United States spent about $700 million on its program, which was active over the course of roughly 27 years.

Still, Ben Ouagrham-Gormley said the cost of a biological weapons program falls short of a nuclear weapons program, which North Korea has publicly admitted to pursuing. But, bioweapons are much harder to maintain, even if the materials are easier to acquire.

“The challenge is in acquiring the expertise to handle and manipulate living organisms that are fragile and unpredictable: that requires time and a work organization that ensure continuity and stability of work,” Ben Ouagrham-Gormley said. “These are conditions that are difficult to maintain in a covert program. That’s why most covert bioweapons programs have failed thus far.”

For similar reasons, there are more uncertainties associated with carrying out a biological attack, which depend on a variety of factors including environmental conditions, airflow, strain virulence, etc.

“If you happen to be on the button, you could start an epidemic, you could start large-scale mass casualties, but everything has to go [just right],” Dr. Eric Cole, an expert on bioterrorism and adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, told FOX Business.

North Korea is widely believed to have as many as 13 biological agents, according to the U.S. and the Republic of Korea, including smallpox, anthrax and the plague. After a joint investigation in 2015, the pair of countries concluded that Pyongyang could “use them in bioterrorism or in an all-out war,” according to a report by the Belfer Center. The United States and the Republic of Korea have held joint biothreat response exercises since 2011.

Under the Biological Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1975, more than 170 signatories are prevented from developing, producing and stockpiling biological agents. Many countries, including the U.S., Russia and North Korea, have signed onto the treaty. The treaty does not, however, prevent research and development into defense capabilities.

When it comes to defending against a potential attack, vaccinations, antiviral medicines, and antibiotics are often the first lines of protection, Dr. Cole said. Not only is the military trained to handle such situations, but there are stores of countermeasures stashed at various locations around the country, he added.

Still, Dr. Cole said that it is important to conduct ongoing research in order to prevent future pathogen threats that could result from genetic engineering.