Current efforts to develop technology that could detect and protect the nation from biological threats “are insufficient and are going in the wrong direction,” the executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense warned lawmakers Thursday.
Asha George, a former subcommittee staff director at the House Committee on Homeland Security who now leads staff at the commission co-chaired by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery that “the nation is not adequately prepared and has not been adequately prepared for more than a decade now.”
“We have nation, state and terrorist threats to worry about. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are all suspected now of maintaining their biological weapons programs,” she said. “And al-Qaeda, ISIL and other terrorist organizations continue to be very vocal about their pursuit of biological weapons and have gone as far as to put training materials up on the internet to train others on how to execute such an action.”
“So, we need to do something about this — the threat is still with us and it requires an active biodefense program, particularly by the Department of Homeland Security.”
DHS “recognizes this,” George added, noting the BioWatch program established in 2003 — in response to the 2001 anthrax letters — that placed biological detectors throughout the nation. “That system has not worked particularly well,” and led DHS to create a new program called BioDetection 21.
“We are not particularly supportive of that particular program. We would like to see its goals be achieved to replace the BioWatch system with much better detectors, but their approach is flawed,” she testified. “They are not utilizing state-of-the-art technology to test. They are not using standard acquisition procedures and, frankly, they are not seeking the input of state and local folks that are actually going to have to respond to whatever happens with these.”
Ranking Member Peter King (R-N.Y.) also panned the program in his broader criticism of DHS’ Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, including the elimination of work “to update a formal, strategic and integrated assessment of chemical, nuclear and biological related risks.”
“From numerous false alarms, delayed notifications of lethal pathogens to a questionable rollout of the second iteration of the program BioDetection 21, BD21, it’s clear that the CWMD office needs to do better,” King said. “The bioterrorism threat is increasing and should be a priority.”
George said the CWMD office “has suffered from changes in the mission and goals and objectives for it since they started talking about creating it” several years ago, “but they seem to have just spun down worse and worse as the years have gone by — these past two years… they just seem not to be able to accomplish any of the things they set out to accomplish.”
No DHS representatives testified at the hearing.
Dr. Jennifer Rakeman, assistant commissioner and laboratory director of the Public Health Laboratory at the New York City Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene, told the subcommittee core public health infrastructure needed to battle biothreats at the local level “requires state of the art laboratories and electronic surveillance systems” as well as “highly skilled staff, such as laboratory leadership, lab bench technologists, epidemiologists, informatics specialists and emergency management and response experts who enable the people and systems to operate efficiently during emergencies.”
“As the largest, most densely populated city in the U.S., New York City is an international hub for business, media and tourism. Consequently, we face a high risk of both intentionally disseminated and naturally occurring hazards,” she said. “A biological attack or large-scale infectious disease outbreak in New York City would significantly impact the health, security, economy and political stability not only of the city but of the rest of the country, and will have an international impact.”
Rakeman said a reliable biodetection system is crucial for a location like New York, and “while we support advancing the current BioWatch program to take advantage of modern biothreat detection technology, we have concerns about the deployment of this new program and the options under evaluation in this part of BD21.”
“Instruments currently deployed for military use which have generated regular false alarms are being considered for implementation in New York City and throughout the country,” she said. “Biothreat detection system requirements for urban settings, like New York, fundamentally differ from the requirements for those used in military settings.”
One problem of the CWMD office, Rakeman said, is that “biological agents have been lumped together with radiological and chemical agents and are being approached in the same manner, which is an issue.”
“You can’t approach biological agents and detection of biological agents the same way that you can for radiological and chemical,” she said. “Radiological and chemical agents are either there or they are not. Biological agents require detecting a specific agent in a mix of lots of biology and biological agents. So, approaching them in the same way does not work well.”
Subcommittee Chairman Donald Payne (D-N.J.) said DHS is “suffering a serious leadership drought that undoubtedly complicates the department’s ability to execute its mission,” and noted tanked morale at CWMD.
“In 2018, the federal employment morale viewpoint survey ranked CWMD as the lowest scoring office in the federal government. Previously, the office had been ranked in the top 20 percent of the federal government in terms of morale. Such a precipitous decline in morale over the course of two years is an extremely concerning trend,” Payne said. “Furthermore, the assistant secretary of CWMD, Jim McDonnell, recently resigned, leaving CWMD without a permanent leader during this precarious time.”
Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah, a past president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), said an “invisibility crisis” is a “major issue in ensuring adequate capacity for preparing and responding to a myriad of emergencies,” and biodetection tools are critical but “cannot be used in isolation.”
“There is a science and an art to public health just as in medicine and we must have access and availability to as much information as possible to make decisions,” he said. “This means that federal, state and local partners must plan together today in order to protect our communities more effectively tomorrow.”
“…While biodetection systems must be robust and accurate, effective and efficient there are still tools within a well-established public health emergency response system. We cannot forget, no matter how invisible they may be, local public health personnel are the ‘boots on the ground’ in ensuring communities are prepared for, protected from and resilient to a variety of health threats.”