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GAO: COVID-19 Response Revealed Opportunities to Strengthen Biodefense Preparedness

The COVID-19 pandemic shows how catastrophic biological incidents can cause substantial loss of life and damage the economy. The 2018 National Biodefense Strategy outlines how to prepare for and respond to such incidents.

The key federal agencies we examined prepared interagency response plans and conducted 74 interagency exercises from 2009-2019 to prepare for anthrax attacks, flu pandemics, and the like. However, the Government Accountability Office found the agencies don’t routinely work together to monitor exercise results to identify potential patterns of problems.

GAO made 16 recommendations aimed at honing the nation’s ability to respond to the next biological threat.

Key federal agencies, including the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Defense (DOD), Health and Human Services (HHS), and Agriculture (USDA), developed a range of interagency response plans to prepare for nationally significant biological incidents. These strategic, operational, and tactical level plans address responding to a broad spectrum of biological threats, including those that are intentional, accidental, or naturally occurring.

DHS, DOD, HHS, and USDA conducted numerous interagency exercises to help prepare for and respond to a wide variety of biological incidents, such as anthrax attacks, influenza pandemics, and diseases affecting plants and animals. Specifically, GAO identified 74 interagency biological incident exercises conducted from calendar years 2009 through 2019.

GAO’s analysis of after-action reports for selected interagency biological incident exercises and real-world incidents, as well as the COVID-19 response, identified long-standing biodefense challenges. GAO found that the nation lacked elements necessary for preparing for nationally significant biological incidents, including a process at the interagency level to assess and communicate priorities for exercising capabilities. Further, it determined that agencies do not routinely work together in monitoring results from exercises and real-world incidents to identify patterns and root causes for systemic challenges. Assessing and communicating exercise priorities and routinely monitoring the results of the exercises and incidents will help ensure the nation is better prepared to respond to the next biological threat.

GAO is making four recommendations each to DHS, DOD, HHS, and USDA, including that the secretaries work through the Biodefense Steering Committee to communicate exercise priorities and conduct monitoring. The departments generally concurred but in response to comments GAO modified the recommendations to reflect that the secretaries work through the Committee identified above.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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