A laboratory technician’s hands hold the anthrax laced letter addressed to Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) at the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick biomedical research laboratory on Dec. 5, 2001. (FBI photo)

National Biodefense Strategy Gives HHS Oversight of Multi-Agency Coordinated Effort

The White House released a National Biodefense Strategy that puts the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of overseeing response to a range of threats from naturally occurring pathogens to bioweapons.

The administration said the goal is “a more efficient, coordinated, and accountable biodefense enterprise” by setting up “a process to assess our capabilities and to prioritize biodefense resources and actions across the government” with an annual assessment. The National Biodefense Strategy “builds on lessons learned from past biological incidents to develop a more resilient and effective biodefense enterprise” including the 2001 anthrax attacks, the 2009 influenza pandemic, the 2014 Ebola epidemic, and the Zika epidemic.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said at a press conference with National Security Advisor John Bolton that “biological threats of a manmade, accidental, or naturally occurring nature are very real and they’re growing.”

“The threats that HHS dealt with under President Obama provided another lesson about the need for a coherent and coordinated strategy,” he said. “The 2014 Ebola crisis demanded efforts from all across the government. HHS took the lead on treatment and epidemiological work in West Africa and here in the U.S. But there were significant roles played by the State Department and USAID, as well as for Department of Homeland Security components, like Customs and Border Patrol. It was widely recognized that, early on, the response was not nearly as well coordinated as it should have been.”

Bolton said HHS was put in charge of the strategy instead of the Department of Homeland Security because “the overwhelming bulk of the scientific and technical expertise in the government on the range of biological threats we face — including, as the secretary said, epidemiological threats, not just biological weapons attack — is in HHS.”

He noted that there’s “no particular immediate threat,” but said the strategy is “intended to be a living document that we can revise and update in light of the circumstances.”

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that her department’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office “has renewed the department’s emphasis on bio security with efforts to develop and deploy a new biodetection system, update emergency responder and medical personnel guidance, examine new technologies, and provide support to our frontline operating components.”

She said DHS “stands ready to support the implementation of this strategy, in close coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services.”

“DHS will continue to work closely with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners, as well as industry and non-government organizations, to ensure we combat evolving biological threats and prepare to respond to biological disasters,” Nielsen said. “By coordinating actions across the interagency, we can better anticipate, prevent, prepare for, respond to, mitigate, and recover from biological disasters.”

Former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, called the release of a strategy “an important and necessary part of U.S. national security.” The bipartisan panel recommended forming a comprehensive national strategy in its 2015 blueprint for biodefense.

“Our panel called for the government to create a comprehensive national strategy to address the biological threat. Congress agreed and included the requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017, President Obama signed that act into law, and now the Trump administration has produced it,” Ridge said. “The White House made a great start with the implementation plan they included with the strategy. We look forward to the White House assigning responsibilities for each element of this plan to specific federal departments and agencies, and establishing timelines for their completion. This is the sort of proactive planning and preparation the American people are looking for in their federal government.”

Read the full National Biodefense Strategy here

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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