One Health Newsletter

One Health Newsletter: Volume 15 Issue 1

Border Biodefense: A Joint Task Force for the Fortification of United States National Security and Public Health


Elijah Urquhart


The permissiveness of country borders presents an immense risk for the introduction of biological products that can severely impact the health of humans and animals. In response, the United States (U.S.) Government should develop a certified border cadre through a joint task force which specializes in biosecurity and biodefense threats.


Country borders are a major vulnerability through which biological materials pass both licitly and illicitly. The threat of unsecure borders encompasses both land, sea, and airports of entry. These border vulnerabilities pose not only a threat to human and animal health, but to the entire One Health apparatus. This assessment will focus on the United States (U.S.) as a case study to analyze border biosecurity challenges. The biological material discussed involves the nefarious and inadvertent import of biological agents, the illicit export of Valuable Biological Material (VBM), and the innate, natural movement of biological material. Following the analysis of these threats, this study proposes a specialized joint task force as the solution to the growing threat. The joint task force specifically supports the U.S. with the potential to expand into the international community. The U.S. was selected as the target country since its federal government has numerous policies which support the creation of such a defined joint task force. The protection of ports of entry is a critical issue for U.S. Health Security as a matter of U.S. National Security.


This analysis of open-source information was completed through a literature review utilizing keyword searches. Journal articles and news articles were searched for relevant terminology including words such as “biosecurity,” “illicit imports,” and “biological material.” Approximately over fifty articles were found to address this subject in some capacity. This extensive list was narrowed to the seven sources referenced in this article due to their subject relevance and credibility. Other relevant border biosecurity examples may exist in a classified manner due to the nature of this subject; however, this assessment only engaged with disclosed examples as it was constructed for an unclassified audience. Therefore, this research is not exhaustive because of potential open-sourced and classified examples that could be added.


The biological risks that threaten ports of entry for the U.S. are diverse and numerous. We present below some exemplary histories of Border Biosecurity Examples of border transgression. Table 1 provides further details on eight border transgressions.

  1. Illicit import of biological materials for undisclosed laboratory relocation1
  2. Illicit import of contaminated goods including livestock and meat2
  3. Illicit import of biological research material3
  4. Export and theft of VBM for personal gain4
  5. Illicit import of intentionally obfuscated biological material5
  6. Illicit import of potentially deadly toxins5
  7. Export and theft of VBM for financial gain6
  8. Illicit import of biological material for market advantage7


Port of Entry at Risk

Border Transgression Event

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

1. Illicit Import of Biological Materials (May 2022): An individual’s suitcases contained approximately 1,000 unlabeled centrifuge tubes containing various compounds when he arrived in Seattle. The materials originated from his mRNA vaccine laboratory which he was attempting to move to the U.S. where his wife was living. His wife had been stealing and sending confidential mRNA and DNA sequencing data to him. The information originated from a major U.S. pharmaceutical company where she worked.1

Long Beach Seaport

2. Illicit Import of Contaminated Livestock or Meat (Ongoing threat that heightened in 2021): Around 20,000 pounds of prohibited meats from China were intercepted at Long Beach Seaport in the first five months of 2020. These products can contain diseases such as African Swine Fever (ASF) which is not present in the US. This highly infectious disease would cripple the pork supply chains of the country.2

Detroit Metropolitan Airport

3. Illicit Import of Biological Material (December 2020): A professor of Infectious and Systemic Diseases attempted to bring research vials into the U.S. without declaring them. Although the samples were found to be benign, the materials were still moved illegally and could have potentially been malignant.3

Boston Logan International Airport

4. Export/Theft of VBM (December 2019): An individual attempted to transport stolen research vials out of the U.S. on a flight destined to China. The vials contained material from cancer-cell research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where the foreign national briefly worked.4

Boston Logan International Airport

5. Illicit Import of Biological Material (October 2019): A man attempted to enter the U.S. with a vial hidden in a slipper. The vial contained unknown compounds that later were discovered to potentially be mouse DNA. The man was identified as the husband of a foreign researcher who worked on stroke cures at an undisclosed Massachusetts hospital.5

Detroit Metropolitan Airport

6. Illicit Import of Biological Material (February 2019): An individual traveling from the Philippines attempted to enter the U.S. with a cooler. The cooler contained preserved cone snails in vials. Cone snails produce toxins capable of paralyzing and killing humans.5

Honolulu Airport

7. Export/Theft of VBM (August 2013): Two foreign nationals came to the U.S. to visit agriculture research facilities. They worked for an agriculture research institute in China. During the return trip through Hawaii, rice seeds were found in their luggage. The seeds were stolen from the Ventria production facility and Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center.6

Unknown Port

(Most likely an airport)

8. Illicit Import of Biological Material (1998): Maine Biological Labs smuggled a H9N2 strain of avian influenza into the U.S. from Saudi Arabia. The vaccine manufacturer planned to use the material to create a marketable vaccine to sell to the Middle Eastern country.7

Table 1: Biosecurity Examples of Border Transgression. Abbreviations: ASF, African Swine Fever; VMB, Valuable Biological Material.

Apart from maritime transport and potentially fishing activities, marine plastic pollution, potentially toxic to any ecosystem, comes from inhabited land, pushed by the wind or via runoff and rivers.


The risks posed to U.S. border biosecurity are significant. The JBBTF is necessary to safeguard U.S. ports of entry through preempting, preventing, and protecting against threats. As displayed in Figure 1, the JBBTF is composed of U.S. Intelligence Community, U.S. Public Health, and U.S. Law Enforcement experts.

Border Biodefense Figure 1
Figure 1:
The Joint Border Biosecurity Task Force, JBBTF. The JBBTF will exist at the intersection of the U.S. IC, U.S. LE, and U.S. PH. These capabilities allow the unit to preempt, prevent, and protect against all border biosecurity threats to bolster One Health integrity.

In response to the eight threats examined in Table 1, we assessed potential actions the JBBTF could have taken or will take to help reduce such threats. The relevant actions are listed below with the numbered scenario for which they correspond.

  1. Preempt the import of hazardous material by identifying the individual’s intentions to relocate to the U.S. through his communications with his wife.
  2. Protect against imported diseases, like ASF, through proactive law enforcement guided by early-warning knowledge through intelligence capabilities.
  3. Prevent the material from crossing the port through the early identification of the individual’s intentions.
  4. Prevent VBM movement by identifying the individual’s intention to steal materials through electronics and communications.
  5. Protect against future smuggled material through coordination to identify the risks and most likely methods of transport.
  6. Preempt material imports by ensuring the incident was isolated and not in coordination with international adversaries.
  7. Preempt the acquisition and export of VBM by identifying potential adversaries.
  8. Protect against imported diseases through coordination with animal health and public health partners.

The JBBTF will partner with, and employ, representatives from existing government agencies that currently support or have the potential to support border biosecurity. These partners include: the National Counterproliferation and Biosecurity Center (NCBC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The JBBTF will utilize intelligence capabilities and health expertise to preempt threats to U.S. ports of entry. Actionable intelligence acquired through several disciplines will inform JBBTF decisions. JBBTF health experts will provide infectious disease forecasting alongside intelligence to assess the greatest border vulnerabilities. The public health guidance provided will yield an actionable analysis of the accidental and deliberate movement of biological material across the border. These capabilities enable the JBBTF to proactively prevent the passage of biological materials without having to be reactive.

Intelligence and law enforcement capabilities allow the JBBTF to prevent successful passage of identified threats at all ports of entry. Once the health and intelligence functions preempt potential threats and vulnerabilities, the JBBTF can take action to prevent the arrival of threats at the U.S. border. This mitigates the need to reactively respond to hazards at ports. JBBTF law enforcement capabilities will prevent threats from passing through interfaces. Lawful mitigation and apprehension of biological materials is critical to safeguarding health security and informing against subsequent threats.

The law enforcement and public health expertise capabilities of the JBBTF will ensure the protection of U.S. border biosecurity. Law enforcement specialization allows the JBBTF to take legal action against threats at the domestic border. Public health actions support measures to reduce any persistent threat not neutralized by law enforcement prevention methods. Public health expertise also provides response guidance during emergency threats. While total threat reduction at the border is ideal, it is inevitable that some biological materials will circumvent prevention measures. Having robust health security guidance during emergency scenarios will reduce the risk of the incident deteriorating.

The JBBTF, or a similar entity, ought to be expanded internationally in order to enhance global border biosecurity. Other countries could establish a similar unit depending on the organization of their government. Some partnerships necessary for this cadre deployment already exist such as the US – Canada Cross-Border Crime Forum and the Five Eyes. Although the international community should invest in a JBBTF-like certified cadre, the U.S. specific unit should not be expanded in a manner that would expose it to potential adversaries.

The U.S. JBBTF capabilities should only be expanded internationally with constraints. The classified nature of the JBBTF’s operational methods and intelligence reports prevent its ubiquitous partnership with other states and organizations. Exposing the JBBTF to adversaries undermines its mission to ensure security at ports of entry. Yet, the JBBTF should coordinate with other non-aggressors to share open-source information and global health data to better address biological health threats to the homeland and beyond as needed.


I would like to thank my professors Drs. John Marley, Jean-Paul Gonzalez, and Richard Calderone who taught me at the MICB 801 Global Infectious Diseases Seminar and encouraged me in this path.


  1. Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Office: Southern District of California. Husband-and-wife scientists plead guilty to illegally importing potentially toxic lab chemicals and illegally forwarding confidential mRNA vaccine research to China. Published May 19, 2022. Accessed April 15, 2023.
  2. City News Service. 20,000 Pounds of Smuggled Meat Products Seized in Long Beach Port. Published June 19, 2020. Accessed August 28, 2023.

  3. Smith L. Biological samples found in infectious disease expert’s luggage destroyed. Newsweek. Published February 17, 2020. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  4. Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Office: District of Massachusetts. Chinese researcher sentenced for making false statements to federal agents. Published January 6, 2021. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  5. Davis J. U.S. Customers and Border Protection Frontline Magazine. Defending against the smallest threats: CBP’s biological threat exclusion coordinators help keep harmful microscopic materials out and safeguard America’s research secret. Published July 1, 2021. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  6. Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Office: Eastern District of Arkansas. Chinese nationals charged with conspiracy to steal rice technology. Published August 3, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  7. Bhattacharjee Y. Scientist pleads guilty of receiving illegally imported avian flu virus. Science. 2004;305:1886-1886.


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The One Health Newsletter is a collaborative effort by a diverse group of scientists and health professionals committed to promoting One Health. This newsletter was created to lend support to the One Health Initiative and is dedicated to enhancing the integration of animal, human, and environmental health for the benefit of all by demonstrating One Health in practice.

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