An Afternoon with ASPR – Dr. Robert Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins

Anthony Falzarano, GMU Biodefense graduate student 

Last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine held another event in their monthly series on biological, chemical and health security issues. This luncheon – consisting of an open forum session with a two-member panel and a moderator – featured Dr. George W. Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins, both from the Department of Health and Human Services office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Drawing from their current roles with ASPR as well as their illustrious careers and vast experiences, two presenters made for a compelling afternoon discussing health security issues and the work being done by ASPR to prepare for and address them.

Dr. Korch spoke first, providing a brief overview and background on ASPR – essentially highlighting that two events, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act and the terrorist attacks of September 11th, were the impetus for the creation of the modern day ASPR. He asserted that the ASPR of the future will be as, if not more, important as it has been, and it is important for them to continue their mission.

He then touched on the (rapidly) changing climate of health security and how new issues like cybersecurity and various political developments, including the use of chemical gas in Syria and the volatile nuclear situation in North Korea, can and often do muddy the waters for the direction of ASPR. Dr. Korch highlighted the current ASPR priorities; reorganization of the office for the new path forward, reauthorization of the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), preparing for large-scale response needs, and modernizing the National Disaster Medical System.

Of these, he highlighted the latter two as his “favorites” for the title of most important priority to address. In the face of large-scale health threats – Dr. Korch made a brief remark on this year being the 100th anniversary of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, and the ever-increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance – as well as frequency of weather and natural disasters, Korch made it clear that the national preparedness tasks are at the forefront of ASPR’s to-do list heading into the future. He also emphasized that he wishes ASPR to adopt a more broad-spectrum approach considering the whole of a pathogen and its ecosystem, a term he dubbed the “interactome.” Interactome science, Korch said, is the future of research and development which will provide us the knowledge and tools for developing more effective prevention and response countermeasures.

Dr. Korch then turned the floor over to Dr. Perkins, who addressed the role of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP), and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in supporting the existing ASPR priorities as well as the new ones which Dr. Korch presented. Speaking for a much briefer period than Korch, Dr. Perkins highlighted two main points. First, she described the desire of BARDA to develop “very far forward” diagnostics, such as wearable devices for health data mining. Second, she emphasized the importance of oversight initiatives like FESAP, which, in response to 2014 – a year which “consisted of a series of lapses in Federal lab safety” – led to the creation of many working groups, which are actively identifying and addressing these issues and providing recommendations for mitigation going forward.

The session concluded with a brief question and answer session, before both speakers reiterated their faith in the mission of ASPR and the belief that they’ve set achievable, relevant priorities.

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