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News | Oct. 14, 2021

Detecting and Deterring Biological Threats, Then and Now

By Andrea Chaney Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Throughout the year 2021, the Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program will celebrate 30 years of collaboration with foreign partners to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by securing and eliminating chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and preventing proliferation of such weapons components, weapons-related materials, technology, and expertise.

To commemorate this milestone, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency examined significant contributions from the CTR Program’s five core program areas, among them the Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). BTRP was established to address threats related to biological WMD proliferation. As such, BTRP is invaluable to the Department of Defense to address U.S. national security needs. The goal of the program is to enable partner countries to prevent, detect, and prepare for disease outbreaks that threaten people or animals as early as possible while they may be addressed at a local level to prevent further spread.

Biological threats can be intentional, accidental, or natural, and BTRP takes a comprehensive approach to assess the impact of the threat regardless of origin. The program aims to counter biological threats in a partner country, at the source, before the threat can reach the homeland or impact U.S. Armed Forces or allies. The program also prevents proliferation by cooperating with partner countries to eliminate their biological weapons (BW), associated materials, and production facilities. Below are some of the program’s highlights.

The first request for BW assistance came from the CTR Program’s original partner country, Russia, in 1998. Prior to that, the Soviet Union signed and ratified the Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention in 1972, and it entered into force in 1975. However, the Soviet Union continued offensive BW development in secret. The clandestine BW stockpiles, labs, sites, scientists, and state-sponsored programs presented a major proliferation threat once the Soviet Union collapsed. BTRP spent its first ten years focused solely on partnerships to address these and other proliferation threats in Former Soviet Union (FSU) partner countries.

In Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, BTRP demilitarized an anthrax production facility and prepared it for ultimate demolition. In Novosibirsk, Russia, the program enhanced laboratory security to the Vector institute. In Vozrezhdeniye Island, Uzbekistan, BTRP eliminated more than 12 tons of weaponized anthrax that was abandoned on site. In Tbilisi, Georgia, the program remediated a bioweapons production facility and established the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, one of the largest, most technologically capable diagnostic and research facilities in the FSU.

The FSU’s initial BW elimination work was completed relatively quickly, while it took longer, years in some cases, to clean up sites, shutdown the state-sponsored programs, and repurpose infrastructure. BTRP simultaneously focused on completing elimination efforts while also helping partner countries stand up comprehensive systems to detect and deter a broad range of threats. As time went by, the program’s efforts expanded to new regions and cooperation with partners shifted to help detect dangerous outbreaks and improve laboratory safety and security. In 2008 Congress granted the CTR Program the authority to work beyond the Former Soviet Union territories.

Since that time, the CTR Program has expanded beyond the FSU to address new and emerging threats, and in that time BTRP has conducted further missions in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. BTRP developed risk assessors and trainers from human and animal health sectors and military health members across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. BTRP coordinated with Australian partners to convene regional discussion of international donors operating in the health security and diagnostic space. The program, in collaboration with Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command conducted the Adaptive Shield 2019 exercise to assess the ability of military and civilian health communities to jointly respond to a dangerous pathogen outbreak. At one point, BTRP activities in Cambodia represented the only military–to-military engagements taking place between U.S. Department of Defense and the Cambodian military. And at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, scientists used BTRP-provided diagnostic equipment and training to determine the first COVID-19 case outside of China, resulting in early detection and reporting that the disease was spreading outside of China. Thailand’s detection and identification of the novel coronavirus represents a major success for BTRP’s threat reduction efforts in Thailand and further reinforces Thailand’s position as a regional leader.

BTRP plays a critical role in addressing proliferation of WMD for the United States. Its efforts enhance partner nation capabilities to detect, diagnose, and report outbreaks of security concern. BTRP engages where the U.S. national security partnerships are most beneficial in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe to establish more regional multilateral networks. BTRP stays at the forefront of advanced and emerging standards and technology to understand the current threat landscape that is shaped by natural and adversarial influences.

For more information on BTRP and other DTRA programs, visit


DTRA provides cross-cutting solutions to enable the Department of Defense, the United States Government, and international partners to deter strategic attack against the United States and its allies; prevent, reduce, and counter WMD and emerging threats; and prevail against WMD-armed adversaries in crisis and conflict.  

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