A global pandemic could kill more people than nuclear war, former VP candidate Lieberman warns

Strengthening US defenses from bioterrorism attacks

The United States needs to sharpen its biodefense strategy to guard against the possibility of a global pandemic and the potential of a terrorist attack using a virus, Joe Lieberman, a former longtime U.S. senator, told CNBC on Thursday.

"Two things keep me up. One is that a group like ISIS will develop a synthetic form of the flu, a powerful flu, and move it into our population," said the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate. "The second, which is probably the more likely, [with] similar effect, is that there be an infectious disease pandemic."

The latter concern about a pandemic hits home for Lieberman.

"In 1918, there was a global flu ... pandemic that killed 50 million people. I must say that my father's mother was killed in her 20s," he said. This type of event could kill more people than nuclear war and "change history."

Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent from Connecticut, co-chairs with the first U.S. Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge, the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which put out its original report on gaps in strategy and recommended changes in October 2015.

Appearing with Lieberman on "Squawk Box," Ridge said the estimated $6 billion per year devoted to biodefense measures could be smarter spent with a more cohesive strategy that aligns the efforts of all federal departments under the auspices of the vice president.

Lieberman said they hope to convince current Vice President Mike Pence to add this to his growing portfolio of responsibilities."

"It's a lot easier to play offense than defense," said Ridge, a Republican who headed the Homeland Security Department under former President George W. Bush. The agency was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Ridge was also formerly governor of Pennsylvania.

Both Ridge and Lieberman, calling on President Donald Trump and leaders on Capitol Hill to make biodefense a national priority, said the government needs to take advantage of the private sector and partner on the development of vaccines.

There are "enormous breakthroughs in biotechnologies," Lieberman said, adding Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has put the issue on his radar.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last month, Gates said that "by the work of nature or the hands of a terrorist" an outbreak could kill tens of millions.

Gates, who's dedicated a bulk of his fortune to fighting disease through his global foundation, added that the U.S. should "prepare for these epidemics the same way we prepare for war."