As the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to expand its influence in Syria—which is known to have a stockpile of chemical weapons—there are real concerns that America could face a chemical or biological attack. In the face of such a danger, the US needs to reorganize its biodefense protocols and increase funding in order to effectively prepare.
The post-9/11 Commission’s Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which convened from December 2014 to April 2015, determined the nation would be completely unprepared for such an attack. The panel held several recent meetings exploring a number of topics, including threat awareness, prevention and protection, surveillance and detection and response and recovery.
Although panel recommendations will not be released until the fall, Asha George, the panel’s co-director and one of the authors of the report, told Homeland Security Today the panel has arrived at three main conclusions.
First, the government’s guidelines on biodefense are scattered and confusing. According to the panel, there are too many different procedures among too many departments, making a unified response difficult. Although a biological or chemical attack could have devastating consequences, the US lacks coherent policies to deal with such an attack.
“We really need to knit together the bits and pieces of biological defense that we have in the United States, and throughout the world, into a cohesive biodefense strategy,” George said.
Second, the panel reached a consensus that the US needs to devote more funding to biodefense. Julie Gerberding, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the panel during a meeting on surveillance and detection in March that other priorities have diverted funds from this area. The panel would also like biodefense funds to be used in a more efficient manner: money should be diverted from programs that don’t work or are superfluous.
Lastly, the panel concluded there is a lack of leadership in biodefense. For example, George pointed to the appointment of an Ebola czar by the White House during the Ebola epidemic, when there were already people who could have taken charge during the crisis.
The panel also said the government should lay out clearly-defined roles and responsibilities in case of a future epidemic or terrorist attack, since a leadership vacuum could significantly hinder response efforts.
“If we try to go forward without a leader, without somebody who has a vision for what needs to happen, without somebody who has a good understanding of all the different pieces and parts that should be coming together to establish good biodefense for this country, then we’re going to continue to have just what we have, which is a sort of mish-mash of stuff, which seems like it might be doing something, but we’re not sure if it is,” George said.
The recommendations of the panel are important due to the very real possibility America could face a chemical or biological attack in the near future. Many experts, including the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission and members of the Intelligence Community, have expressed concern that a terrorist group such as ISIS could get its hands on biological or chemical weapons through Syria. If that happens, the panel believes there’s little doubt they would use these weapons against the US.
Another area of the world the panel is concerned about is Central Asia. Biological weapons from the Cold War that Soviets in the area were working on during that time have since disappeared, raising concerns they still exist and will resurface in the hands of terrorists.
The panel also examined US preparedness for the spread of an infectious disease in the wake of last year’s Ebola outbreak—the deadliest in history. The panel found that the outbreak exposed serious deficiencies in US public health preparedness, and could have been handled better by having proper protocols in place for the spread of infectious diseases, which require special treatment of patients and handling of specimens. Hospitals must be prepared for what could happen if a deadly or antibiotic resistant disease spread to the United States.
Indeed, Homeland Security Today previously reported that a report on outbreaks of infectious diseases by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found America is radically unprepared for a pandemic such as Ebola, a problem Homeland Security Today has repeatedly noted since 2004.
The report revealed the Ebola outbreak highlighted serious underlying gaps in the country’s ability to handle severe infectious disease threats and control their spread. Although the country has made significant strides in preparing for public health emergencies since 9/11, competing priorities and initiatives, as well as fewer dollars, significantly challenge national public health preparedness.
“Over the last decade, we have seen dramatic improvements in state and local capacity to respond to outbreaks and emergencies,” said TFAH Executive Director Jeffrey Levi. “But we also saw during the recent Ebola outbreak that some of the most basic infectious disease controls failed when tested.”
“The Ebola outbreak is a reminder that we cannot afford to let our guard down,” Levi added.
Homeland Security Today also reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not effectively managed and overseen its inventory of pandemic preparedness supplies, including protective equipment and antiviral drugs, calling into question the ability of DHS personnel to effectively protect themselves during their respond to a pandemic.
Although the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) has a grant program to devise an improved response for how to deal with infectious diseases, the panel stated grants are not the solution. Grant programs are slow and it’s not enough to just throw money at the problem. “We cannot afford to establish specific grant programs for every single disease on the planet that we are concerned about,” George said.
Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and the first Secretary of DHS, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, serve as the panel’s co-directors. George stated the panel was started by other former government officials who were also involved in biodefense roles. George has worked as a contractor for DHS and HHS.
“It was almost an intellectual pursuit,” George said. “We thought that nobody had evaluated the biodefense protections of the United States for a while, and that it was time to do it again.”
Although most of the panel’s proposals will take a while to implement, George is hopeful that some short-term proposals could be in place within the year.
“Understand that we’re talking about an enormous enterprise,” George said.
However, she added, “There will be recommendations that should be able to be executed within the following year.”