Amid concerning reports that terrorist organizations may use biological weapons to conduct an attack on American soil, and as the Zika virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects, continues to spread at rapid clip, lawmakers met to discuss the current status of US biosurveillance efforts.
The House Committee on Homeland Security’s Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee held a hearing last week to review the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) biological detection and surveillance programs, especially in light of recent critical Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviews and the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.
“A bio attack could cause illness or death in hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelm our public health capabilities, and have an economic impact of over one trillion dollars per incident,” said Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ). “Our nation’s capacity to mitigate the impacts of all types of biological events is a top national security priority. But, we know that our efforts leave room for improvement.”
Last year, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the nation’s billion dollar biosurveillance program, BioWatch, is a far cry from adequate and cannot be counted on to actually work.
According to GAO’s report, the rapid deployment of the program in 2003 in the wake of the tragic September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks did not allow for sufficient testing and evaluation of the system’s capabilities. Without sufficient testing, DHS could not support the claim that the program could meet its operational objective to detect catastrophic attacks, which they define as attacks large enough to cause 10,000 casualties.
GAO’s report is troubling given the current threat environment. In his 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the Director of National Intelligence explained that weapons of mass destruction, biological materials and technologies, and infectious diseases that emerge quickly and spread globally, pose increasingly significant threats in today’s interconnected world.
The US may not be prepared to meet these threats. The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense’s report released in October highlights serious shortcomings of the DHS’s biological surveillance and detection efforts through the National Biosurveillance Integration System (NBIS) and the BioWatch Program.
Blue Ribbon Co-Chair and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge recommended, “Either we make these effective tools or we replace them.”
DHS is working in collaboration with DHS S&T to improve and modernize the BioWatch system. DHS has reached out to its stakeholder communities asking for recommendations on how to improve the system, and based on that feedback, generates requirements, said Dr. Kathryn Brinsfield, Assistant Secretary, Office of Health Affairs (OHA), DHS.
Dr. Reginald Brothers, Under Secretary for Science and Technology at DHS, said they are looking at making improvements in two timeframes: a near-term timeframe of 3 years and a long-term timeframe of 3-8 years. Near-term improvements include improving the existing equipment and then working with industry to make a better system.
“Technology is changing rapidly,” said Brothers. “Therefore, as we try to generate these requirements, we need to understand what the ‘art of the possible’ is and in pursuit of the ‘art of the possible,’ we are reaching out to industry. We know we do not have all the answers internally.”
Ranking Member Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) expressed concern that DHS is notmaking enough progress in improving US biosurveillance capabilities. He asserted, “We have been here before. Convince me that we have changed the technology, convince me that we have acquired better equipment, and that we are getting to where we ought to be.”
Inresponse, Brinsfield addressed false positives to give an example of DHS’ progress. She said OHA has done quality assurance to eliminate those false detections. Over the summer, the system successfully detected an uptick in disease.
“It is not a detection of a terror attack—which a system could never do alone anyway—but it does show the system has progressed in its ability to detect,” said Brinsfield.
Chris Currie, Director of Emergency Management, National Preparedness and Critical Infrastructure Protection at GAO, did not agree. He raised two concerns: (1) That the current system is the baseline for improvements and (2) with the next generation of technology still in the research and development stage, there is very little detail about what the next step entails.
“We are using the same technology we have been using, so it is not clear what this new technology will look like,” said Currie.
Brothers said DHS is trying to understand not only the most effective technologies, but also the pathogens they are attempting to detect, so they know what they should be building for in the next generation system.
“We need to understand what is out there, and that is what we are doing right now,” Brothers noted. Thompson responded, “But we are on the same horse. We are still using the same equipment. We need to get to the next level of technology.”
He continued, “We have heard this all before. We need to have some idea that we are not still working with 12 or 15 year old situation when things have changed.”
Brinsfield said she could only speak to the near-term improvements. She said the next stage is really a research and development problem. In turn, Brothers said he could understand the concern, but could not speak to a timeframe.
Weighing in at Thompson’s request, Currie stated that his concerns are that the planned improvements are based on the existing technology. Currie explained that GAO raised concerns that although DHS has done some testing, there has been no comprehensive testing ensuring that the system does what it is supposed to do. He said if they are going to improve upon the current system, it makes sense to go back and do the testing.
Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ) raised similar concerns, saying the current system is 12 years old, and long overdue for an update.
Currie noted, however, that technology development for DHS is very different than it is for defense. There may be more restrictions, such as privacy. However, that is why it is so important to follow the acquisition program and set requirements which answer the question of what you want that technology to do.
“You have to test for those requirements,” said Currie. “It is a laborious process, but a necessary one to ensure the technology is successful.”