The impact of a biological attack on US soil could be catastrophic, resulting in a massive loss of life, severe economic consequences and chaos. Consequently, our nation’s capacity to detect, respond to and mitigate the consequences of this potential threat must be a top national security priority. However, US biosurveillance capabilities face a number of serious challenges, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report.
“Although Ebola did not cause many US casualties, the outbreak in West Africa from 2013 through 2015 underscored the importance of developing and maintaining a national biosurveillance capability — that is, the ability to detect biological events of national significance with the aim of providing early warning and better information to guide public health and other types of emergency response,” GAO stated.
“Further,” GAO added, “because the data needed to detect an emerging infectious disease or bioterrorism threat may come from a variety of sources, the ability to share and analyze data from multiple sources may help officials better collaborate to analyze data and quickly recognize the nature of a disease event and its scope.”
The National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established through the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. The center was specifically tasked with integrating and analyzing information from human health, animal, plant, food and environmental monitoring systems across the federal government and supporting the interagency biosurveillance community.
GAO identified three roles of the NBIC: analyzer, coordinator and innovator. In other words, the NBIC’s role is to use technology to improve situational awareness and provide earlier warnings for biological incidents; bring together partners across the federal biosurveillance community to enhance understanding of biological events; and to facilitate the development of new tools to address gaps in biosurveillance integration.
GAO said, “These roles are not mutually exclusive and can reinforce one other.”
In fulfilling these roles, however, NBIC faces a number of challenges. For example, in the area of analysis, 8 of 11 federal partners of NBIC with key roles in biosurveillance stated the center’s products do not help the agencies identify biological events, since they obtain this kind of information from other federal partners directly and more quickly.
In addition, in the area of coordination, only 3 of 19 partners provided NBIC with dedicated liaisons, and in the area of innovation, federal partners noted limitations in NBIC’s ability to address gaps like limited resources and the difficulty in prioritizing the center’s innovation efforts because its partners have diverse needs.
In response, GAO identified various options that could address these challenges and better implement its overall mission. The government investigators stated each option has its limitations and they did not examine the financial implications of the options they recommended.
Option 1: Reinforce NBIC’s Analyzer Role
- Under this option, NBIC would be provided with new authorities and resources designed to access additional public and private data sources and statistical and modeling tools to develop meaningful information. However, this option could result in increased costs. In addition, the need, concept, data availability and impact of earlier detection is uncertain.
Option 2: Strengthen NBIC’s Coordinator Role
- Under this option, NBIC would be provided with greater authority for coordinating the federal biosurveillance enterprise. NBIC would be the operational agency accountable for overseeing the implementation of the National Strategy for Biosurveillance. This option would create clear leadership, better institutional connection, routine channels for monitoring emerging trends and patterns, and enhanced accountability for implementing the National Strategy for Biosurveillance. However, GAO also noted that it may be difficult for an agency at NBIC’s level to successfully influence decision making across the interagency and could also result in role conflict and confusion.
Option 3: Expand NBIC’s Innovator Role
- Under this option, NBIC would be provided with new authorities and resources to lead research and development investments of new tools and technology that would address gaps across the biosurveillance community. However, this would likely exceed NBIC’s current annual budget, require more expertise in research and development, and may require very different sets of resources and procedures.
Option 4: Continue to Execute 2012 NBIC Strategic Plan
- In this option, NBIC would continue to implement the mission, goals, and objectives detailed in the August 2012 NBIC Strategic Plan. GAO noted NBIC has made progress over the years and continues to do so. However, some NBIC members remain skeptical of NBIC’s value.
Option 5: Repeal the NBIC Statute
- In this option, national biosurveillance integration would not be pursued through NBIC; instead, another primary biosurveillance agency would be designated as the federal biosurveillance integrator. GAO noted, however, that even though federal agencies indicated that they were not benefitting from NBIC products and activities, they did indicate that having a federal entity to integrate biosurveillance information is important. Putting another agency in this role may simply submit it to the same challenges the NBIC faces.
GAO stated that, “Although these options are not exhaustive, they represent a range of potential actions that could be taken to better fulfill the biosurveillance integration mission described in the 9/11 Commission Act.”
DHS received a draft of the report and acknowledged the array of challenges detailed in the report, as well as noting some actions it is undertaking to try to address them. The agency also expressed appreciation for GAO’s acknowledgement of its progress in fulfilling prior recommendations to improve its biosurveillance efforts.
This is not the first report GAO has conducted regarding the effectiveness of the nation’s biosurveillance efforts. Earlier this year, the government watchdog issued a report discussing a number of audits GAO has conducted since 2010 on the importance of effectively conducting biosurveillance.
Furthermore, in 2009, Homeland Security Today reported GAO revealed federal agencies are not properly working together to share data and personnel for the early detection of biological threats in the US.
GAO determined the NBIC did not have the resources it needed to carry out its primary mission of detecting disease outbreaks and other threats because its partner agencies were not providing it with the necessary data or personnel.
The GAO auditors recommended the NBIC tackle these challenges by identifying and addressing barriers to collaboration in conjunction with its interagency partners.
“NBIC is not fully equipped to carry out its mission because it lacks key resources-data and personnel-from its partner agencies, which may be at least partially attributed to collaboration challenges it has faced," the GAO audit reported, adding, "Integrating biosurveillance data is an inherently interagency enterprise, as reflected by both law and NBIC’s strategy for meeting its mission."
Today, although a biological attack remains a low probability event, given the severity of the consequences of such an attack, it is crucial the US continue to improve its biosurveillance capabilities.