The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exposed weaknesses in America’s biodefense but stands as a reminder that “this pandemic will not be the last” as the country remains “dangerously vulnerable to biological threats” with lax implementation of longstanding recommendations to shore up prevention, detection, response, and mitigation, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense said.
“While the current spotlight on COVID-19 is necessary and urgent, it would be a costly mistake to focus solely on this pandemic to the exclusion of all other biological threats,” said commission co-chairman former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. “Nation-states such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia continue to invest heavily in advancing biotechnology and could produce biological agents and weapons. Terrorist organizations also remain interested in learning how to attack enemies with biological agents” including anthrax and botulism. “National biodefense must begin and end with strong national leadership.”
“The efforts of all federal departments and agencies with responsibilities for biodefense need to be coordinated, and they must be held accountable, by the White House,” he added.
Formerly known as the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, the group was formed in 2014 and the following year issued the benchmark report A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts. The panel’s new report this week, Biodefense in Crisis: Immediate Action Needed to Address National Vulnerabilities, walks through the status of the 33 recommendations made years ago and gives 11 updated recommendations to reflect lessons learned through the horrendous toll COVID has taken on the country and world.
“Out of our 87 recommended action items, the government has completed just 3, took some action to address 54, no action on 24, and emergency or crisis actions on 6 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” co-chairman former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said. “We are still more vulnerable to the next pandemic than we should be.”
The report stresses that “countless lives can be saved in the future by federal leadership; many lives will be lost without it.”
“The emergence of the SARS-COV-2 virus and the resulting COVID-19 pandemic reveals the numerous gaps remaining in U.S. biodefense,” it says. “The Commission urges policymakers to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and address critical gaps in the Nation’s biodefense, without waiting for COVID-19 to disappear, and before we find ourselves facing the next infectious disease pandemic or biological attack.”
The mosquito-borne Zika virus resulted in more than 3,700 cases of congenital birth defects in the Americas yet a vaccine has yet to be approved, the report notes. Ebola outbreaks in Africa “were never fully eradicated and defy control to this day.” And the 2018-2019 influenza season “resulted in nearly 57,000 deaths in the United States because the vaccine was only 29 percent effective.”
“Federal and private sector facilities that work in the United States with select agents also remain unacceptably insecure and troubling safety and security lapses still occur,” the report continues. “These institutions provide much needed research to support the biodefense enterprise. However, such work requires stronger management, funding, and oversight to prevent accidental or intentional releases of pathogens from high containment laboratories.”
As far as COVID-19, “the U.S. contribution to rapid vaccine development” to combat the virus “yielded results outstripping even the most optimistic of assessments, but nearly every other aspect of our response to the pandemic falls short of our peer countries and that of many low-to-middle income countries in the developing world.”
“COVID-19 has devastated American lives, the economy, and our national confidence, and yet the next biological event could be even worse and happen at any time.”
New recommendations in this report include:
- President should establish a dedicated Deputy National Security Advisor for Biodefense, overseen by the Vice President of the United States and supported by NSC staff in a Directorate for Global Public Health Security and Biodefense and a Directorate for Domestic Public Health Security and Biodefense.
- The White House should establish a federal advisory committee comprised of state, local, tribal, and territorial and private sector representatives charged with advising the Biodefense Steering Committee.
- The National Security Council, in coordination with the Biodefense Steering Committee, should develop and issue a comprehensive implementation plan for the National Biodefense Strategy.
- House and Senate leadership should establish a bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Working Group on Biodefense.
- Congress should mandate in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 an annual, comprehensive report on biodefense activities of all Intelligence Community agencies and national intelligence managers.
- Congress should, in the National Defense Authorization Act, direct the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General, and the Director of National Intelligence to jointly develop, plan for, and establish a national biological attribution apparatus to inform decision-making.
- Congress should amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the National Biosurveillance Integration System.
- Congress should amend the Public Health Service Act to authorize the HHS Regional Disaster Health Response System.
- Congress should amend the Public Health Service Act to direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct a comprehensive review of existing medical countermeasure programs, policies, and assets, including the Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing. Findings should inform the FY 2023 budget request.
- Congress should amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to authorize the Global Health Security Agenda and provide increased, consistent appropriations to support the Agenda’s activities.
The report also recommends that Office of Management and Budget, in coordination with the NSC, eliminate the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program from all future presidential budget requests.
“Current BioWatch technology performs poorly and is far from the deterrence mechanism it was originally intended to be. BioWatch detectors, when they work, only provide useful data hours or days after an event. While we appreciate that DHS heard our concerns and is looking into replacing outdated non-functional BioWatch technology, Biodetection 2021, the DHS acquisition program to identify and acquire new biodetection technology, has its own difficulties,” the report states. “Clear requirements for replacement technology have not been established for this acquisition program and concerns abound regarding the methods utilized by DHS to field and test these new technologies. In the meantime, BioWatch continues to use limited, decades-old collection equipment paired with more advanced laboratory testing capability, limping along until the Biodetection 2021 program acquires usable new technology and DHS can procure it.”
Six actions based on the commission’s original blueprint were only taken in crisis mode — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Commission acknowledges that the Trump Administration elevated biodefense policy to the level of the National Security Advisor and put the Vice President in charge of COVID-19 response,” the report continues. “However, national biodefense requires a permanent centralized authority who can effectively act on behalf of the President to manage and make budgetary decisions about the fifteen departments, eight independent agencies, and one independent institution that comprise the national biodefense enterprise.”
The commission issued a statement Wednesday praising the Biden administration for including $30 billion for biodefense in its new infrastructure plan to “invest smartly in medical countermeasure manufacturing, our strategic national stockpile, prototype vaccines and other critical priorities.”
“The President’s American Jobs Plan is an excellent start and the Commission is pleased to see him making biodefense a national priority. As an organization whose very name includes the word bipartisan, we urge the Administration to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans to find areas of agreement,” Ridge said. “As COVID-19 demonstrated, biological events do not recognize red or blue states. We look forward to working with the Administration and Congress in the days and weeks ahead, to help ensure that our Nation is no longer vulnerable to the devastating consequences of biological incidents.”