Biological Events, Critical Infrastructure, and the Economy: An Unholy Trinity

by Stephen Taylor, GMU Biodefense MS student 

At its recent meeting about resilience, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense explored the potential impacts of a biological event on critical infrastructure in the United States, as well as the best way to approach risk mitigation.  Ann Beauchesne, former Senior Vice President of the National Security and Emergency Preparedness Department at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, summed up critical infrastructure as “the critical services for our society and the backbone our economy.”  Projected increases in global travel, trade, and development all rely on critical infrastructure, magnifying the potential impact of insults to infrastructure systems.  Concurrently, biological threats are also on the rise. As the world warms and urbanizes, natural infectious disease outbreaks manifest in unexpected places. Anthrax and ricin-laced letters to U.S. political leaders in 2001 and 2013, respectively, represent only the vanguard of a new age of deliberate biological threats.  Gene editing and synthetic biological technologies, as demonstrated by the de novo synthesis of horsepox virus in 2017, offer ever-evolving tools for creating potent biological weapons.  The Dutch Ministry of Defense has projected that the world is likely to face a large-scale biological attack in the next 10-15 years. America must be prepared for the contingency that biological threats and critical infrastructure collide.

Terrell Harris, Head of Worldwide Security for FedEx, illustrated an example of the potentially disruptive effect of a biological event on critical infrastructure, society, and the economy.  FedEx and companies like it are essential to the movement of goods.  Not only are the services they provide foundational to the economy, they also produce billions of dollars in revenue.  FedEx’s risk starts with the infection of employees who directly support delivery operations.  If employees are incapacitated by an infectious disease or too afraid to come to work, FedEx may lose its capacity to operate in that region.  Though FedEx has redundancies built into its network of hubs and delivery routes, loss of FedEx service could be economically crippling to a region where it cannot operate.  If a large-scale biological event makes enough regions inoperable, redundancies may begin to break down, threatening the FedEx worldwide delivery network. This could have significant economic impacts for FedEx, as well as the global economy.

FedEx faces the additional challenge of being a potential facilitator of biological threats.  In spite of corporate and government regulations on the shipping of select agents, biohazardous materials, intentionally or unintentionally, can find their way into FedEx’s shipping network.  FedEx, therefore, must take an active role in developing and implementing risk mitigation protocols and educating its staff on biological threats.

Who is responsible for ensuring preparation against biological threats?  Beauchesne observed that the majority of U.S. infrastructure is privately owned.  FedEx has an important role in ensuring the biosafety and biosecurity of its employees and the world.  The private sector is clearly an important stakeholder and partner in threat reduction and risk mitigation.  Harris also emphasized, however, the importance of the federal government in centralized biodefense coordination.  The government needs to have a focused authority that is able to coordinate response efforts and share critical information in times of crisis. Between crises, Beauchesne added, private sector vehicles for crisis planning and simulation need government counterparts providing policy leadership.  The private sector focus in crisis response planning tends to be on business continuity.  It is up to the government to determine how coordinated efforts between government and private entities will protect society at large from a biological event. While Beauchesne sees a lot of private sector engagement in business continuity planning (Walmart is a standout example), she stated that she has seen declining engagement with the private sector from the U.S. government in biological event preparedness and prevention since 2013.

What should the U.S government do, then, to re-engage in prevention and mitigation of biothreats to U.S. infrastructure? Beauchesne recommended starting at the top.  Putting in place cabinet appointees who recognize the gravity of biothreats is essential.  The private sector has a lot to offer.  While the international community largely botched its initial response to the West African Ebola outbreak, FedEx’s operations in the region saw very little negative impact.  This was due to meticulous crisis planning pre-outbreak and effective communication post-outbreak on FedEx’s part.  Policy makers and cabinet leadership should pave the way for biothreat prevention and mitigation by tapping into private sector expertise.  This public/private partnership would pool the leadership, know-how, and resources necessary to protect U.S. citizens, infrastructure, and the economy from biological threats.



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