On 17 February 2022, Dr. Asha M. George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, testified as an expert witness before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs at a hearing on addressing the gaps in the nation’s biodefense and level of preparedness to respond to biological threats. In 2015, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released its first report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense, to warn that the biological threat was rising and to inform the government that the nation was insufficiently prepared to handle a large-scale biological event. When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, many of those findings proved to be true.
While some strides have been made before and during COVID-19, the United States and the international community are still
insufficiently prepared to address the escalating biological threat. Last year, the Department of State released a report in which it stated clearly that Russia and North Korea possess active biological weapons programs, with China and Iran not far behind. The United States must assume that its enemies are actively paying attention to the vulnerabilities revealed during COVID-19 and must prepare for a biological weapons attack on the U.S. homeland.
U.S. biopreparedness is fractionated, multifaceted, and distributed across all levels of government and much of the private sector. The federal government’s response to the pandemic has illustrated the broad swath of departments and agencies involved in biodefense. All 15 cabinet departments, 8 independent agencies, and 1 independent institution (see Table 1) are responsible for
biodefense, including preparedness.
|Table 1. The 15 Cabinet Departments, 8 Independent Agencies, and 1|
Independent Institution Responsible for Biodefense
|Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services,|
Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Treasury,
Transportation, and Veterans Affairs
|Central Intelligence Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration,|
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Nuclear Security Administration, National
Science Foundation, Office of the Director for National Intelligence, and U.S. Postal Service
Since the release of the Blueprint, some improvements have certainly been made. For example, Congress required – and the Trump Administration released – a National Biodefense Strategy to align all existing policies and programs across the federal government. In many other ways, however, the United States has either made no headway or took steps backwards. For example, the United States has participated in exercises that frequently demonstrated that a large-scale biological event could quickly overcome the nation, yet leaders did not take decisive action to ensure that the lessons observed became lessons learned.
Since the release of the Blueprint, some improvements have been made. In many other ways, however, the nation has either made no headway or took steps backwards.
Many of the homeland security assets in place today are inadequate to meet the needs of the nation. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) BioWatch program, for example, is incapable of detecting biological threats effectively. Last year, the Commission issued a report, Saving Sisyphus: Advanced Biodetection for the 21st Century, to describe concerns about BioWatch and make recommendations as to what can be done to achieve the vision for the program begun in 2003. Nineteen years is long enough for things to go on as they have. The Commission recommends that Congress either shut it down or replace it with a program that works effectively. States, localities, and taxpayers deserve no less and the good people working in the Department of Homeland Security deserve some relief.
In 2017, DHS created an Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD), which Congress subsequently authorized a year later. Though department officials envisioned the office to be a one-stop-shop to address weapons of mass destruction by the department, authorizing legislation did not reflect that mission. As Congress examines the department’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, they must clarify its role.
While preparing for the next biological event seems daunting, the nation has overcome grand challenges like this in the past. If going to the moon is achievable, so is establishing an Apollo Program for Biodefense to take all pandemic threats off the table in 10 years. The Commission recommended such a program and has developed other specific biodefense recommendations, including many for the Department of Homeland Security.
The United States cannot afford to focus on COVID-19 to the exclusion of all other biological threats. As the nation continues to respond to and tries to recover from this pandemic, leaders must prepare for biological attacks, accidental releases, and other infectious diseases with pandemic potential.
Asha M. George
Asha M. George, DrPH, is the executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. She is a public health security professional whose research and programmatic emphasis has been practical, academic, and political. She served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a senior professional staffer and subcommittee staff director at the House Committee on Homeland Security in the 110th and 111th Congress. She has worked for a variety of organizations, including government contractors, foundations, and non-profits. As a contractor, she supported and worked with all federal departments, especially the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. She also served on active duty in the U.S. Army as a military intelligence officer and as a paratrooper. She is a decorated Desert Storm Veteran. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Natural Sciences from Johns Hopkins University, a Master of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Doctorate in Public Health from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She is also a graduate of the Harvard University National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.
John T. O'Brien
John T. O’Brien, MS, is a research associate for the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. He is a public health security professional with a background in bioengineering and emerging infectious diseases. Prior to joining the Commission, he conducted research on the biosecurity implications of artificial intelligence with the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. Before that, he worked at the Nuclear Threat Initiative where he supported work on the Global Health Security Index as a contributing author. He previously conducted laboratory research at George Mason University’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases on novel detection methods for Zika, Chikungunya, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, and Rift Valley Fever viruses. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Bioengineering, with a concentration in Biomedical Signals & Systems, from George Mason University and a Master of Science in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases from Georgetown University. He is also currently pursuing his DPhil in Biology at the University of Oxford.