Congress should take to heart the biodefense lessons of the past two years and guide the Department of Homeland Security’s biological detection and response capabilities toward greater effectiveness and efficiency, experts told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday.
Dr. Asha M. George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, noted that “while COVID-19 dominates our national and global attention, the biological threat continues to increase” six years after the group’s co-chairs former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) testified before the same committee about the commission’s landmark A National Blueprint for Biodefense.
“And while some strides have been made, we are still not sufficiently prepared. Last year, the State Department released a report in which it stated clearly and unequivocally that Russia and North Korea now possess active biological weapons programs, with China and Iran not far behind,” George told senators. “We must assume that our enemies, both nation-states and terrorists, are paying attention to the vulnerabilities revealed during COVID-19 and that we must prepare for an attack on the U.S. homeland with biological weapons.”
The whole of government is responsible for biodefense and biopreparedness, she emphasized, and “we cannot afford to optimize for COVID-19 or other naturally occurring diseases with pandemic potential to the exclusion of all else.”
Some progress has been made, such as the National Biodefense Strategy required by Congress, released by the last administration, and being refined by the current administration, George said, “but in many other ways, we either made no headway or took backward steps” including not taking “decisive action to ensure that those lessons observed became lessons learned” after exercises underscored the impact a large-scale biological event would have on the country.
Last year, a commission report recommended that Office of Management and Budget, in coordination with the NSC, eliminate the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program from all future presidential budget requests. George told senators that “it has been painful watching the DHS try over and over again… to create an effective biodetection system that serves the needs of the nation.”
“We recommend that you either shut it down or replace it with a program that works the way you want it to. Our states, localities, and taxpayers deserve no less,” she said. “And the good people working in the Department of Homeland Security deserve some relief. I want to applaud the biodefense efforts of FEMA, the Coast Guard, CBP, ICE, the Secret Service, TSA, and CISA — all contribute directly to defending the nation against biological threats. They deserve your awareness, oversight, and support.”
“But as you examine the department’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, I urge the committee to clarify its role. The legislation authorizing this office lacks direction and specificity, and it needs direction and guidance from you.”
Dr. Gerald Parker, associate dean for the Global One Health at Texas A and M University and chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said COVID-19 “has exposed the stark reality that a novel respiratory virus can emerge anywhere and spread around the world in weeks with devastating consequences.”
“We knew a pandemic was coming, but it was difficult to predict when, what, where, and how a novel virus would emerge,” said Parker, a former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Rapid responses such as the accelerated development of COVID-19 vaccines happened thanks to congressionally approved programs and appropriations over the years as the threats evolved after the 2001 anthrax letters. “But looking back on the response to date, it is clear we remain dangerously vulnerable to the next inevitable biosecurity crisis, whether natural, deliberate, or accidental,” he added.
“A national pandemic preparedness enterprise, which includes states and private sector partners, is essential for success, but that will require an effective, centralized leadership structure, vision, and goals that transcends administrations,” Parker continued. “We must overcome and learn how to manage a fragmented interagency system. Without an effective leadership structure that bridges the seams and the federal bureaucracy, even the best of leaders at all levels and organizations will not be able to drive effective coordination, collaboration, communication, and innovation across the preparedness continuum during peacetime nor during a crisis. Unfortunately, the inability to harness the fragmented interagency is a long-recognized biodefense health security and public health preparedness gap.”
Christopher Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, said his top recommendation to DHS would be to follow up on the lessons learned two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before COVID, the problem is we had a lot of these gaps identified and these actions identified, but we didn’t really have a mechanism of accountability to figure out who was supposed to close them and any follow-up to see whether they were closed,” he said. “And if we don’t do that after COVID, then it’s just the lessons learned are going to be an absolute waste. So, I think, for me, right now, that is the No. 1 thing we need to focus on. And whatever actions those might be, not just at the agency level, there could be new legislation, new roles and responsibilities identified and clarified as well, and that would require the help of Congress.”
The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense said in its report last year that “current BioWatch technology performs poorly and is far from the deterrence mechanism it was originally intended to be.”
“BioWatch detectors, when they work, only provide useful data hours or days after an event. While we appreciate that DHS heard our concerns and is looking into replacing outdated non-functional BioWatch technology, Biodetection 2021, the DHS acquisition program to identify and acquire new biodetection technology, has its own difficulties,” the report stated. “Clear requirements for replacement technology have not been established for this acquisition program and concerns abound regarding the methods utilized by DHS to field and test these new technologies. In the meantime, BioWatch continues to use limited, decades-old collection equipment paired with more advanced laboratory testing capability, limping along until the Biodetection 2021 program acquires usable new technology and DHS can procure it.”
George told the Senate committee that shutting down and replacing the BioWatch and BD21 programs stands as her No. 1 recommendation to get DHS on the right biodefense footing.
“Our commission went and looked at other technologies. These technologies exist. They’re in use by other departments and agencies,” she said. “And in fact, the CWMD Office has engaged with some of those other departments and agencies to develop some of this technology but has not asked them to perhaps modify some of that technology for use in terms of biodetection.”
“If the CWMD Office is given more time, if it’s given tools and resources to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat biosecurity threats, do you believe that that would address the challenges?” asked Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.). “Would it be more effective for this committee to revisit the decision to consolidate the Office of Health Affairs and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office?”
George replied that it would be wise to revisit the latter option, as “the consolidation of the department’s nuclear detection capabilities, biodetection capabilities, chemical detection capabilities, and a slew of other WMD-oriented related activities in this one office just simply hasn’t worked out particularly well.”
“There’s no guidance for the Department of Homeland Security to really understand where Congress was trying to go with it. I would absolutely recommend taking a look at the various elements of this office, and I would send all of those elements right back to the rest of the department, down to the operational components, and over to other parts of the headquarter’s elements,” she said. “The port monitors, for example, should go to the people who are securing the ports, CBP and Coast Guard. If you want to keep the BioWatch detectors after replacing them with better technology, then you should send those to the Secret Service that handles national special security events and perhaps to CISA because they’re in charge of critical infrastructure, and that’s where we’re putting these detectors.”
“The material threat determinations that are conducted by the department are, for the most part, conducted by the Science and Technology Directorate,” George continued. “They don’t need CWMD managing S&T and a little bit of I&A to get those done. I could go on, but you see where I’m going. I think that if you did that and you returned the intelligence element — the WMD intelligence people were taken out of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis and sent over to this WMD Office — I think if you return these things to where they started from and send them to where it makes sense to have those assets, I think you’ll have a stronger department and a stronger biodefense program at the department than what we have right now.”