A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Multi-Disciplinary Threats

by Janet Marroquin, GMU Biodefense

Nearing the two year anniversary of the Biodefense Strategy Act and twelve years after the Amerithrax incident that changed the course of biodefense, a new National Biodefense Strategy has been released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2016, the Biodefense Strategy Act produced a congressional requirement for the White House to create a new biodefense strategy in response to a 2015 Blue Ribbon Study Panel report that determined the 2009 National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats to be inadequate in effectively protecting the U.S. from biological threats.  Policy recommendations made by the Panel and various other advisory councils, including the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Security Council, and the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (see previous Pandora Report article on the M.I.A. biodefense strategy) included the following:

  • A single, centralized approach to biodefense (such as a coordination council)
  • An interdisciplinary approach to biodefense that includes policy makers, scientists, health experts, academia
  • A comprehensive strategy addressing human, plant, and animal health (i.e., a One Health model)
  • Defense against global and domestic biological threats
  • A proactive policy combating the misuse/abuse of advancing biotechnology

In spite of the reduced FY 2018 spending on biodefense-related agencies and an increasing isolationist doctrine under the current administration, the Strategy adopted all five of the listed policy recommendations.  A new Biodefense Steering Committee is now housed under HHS and supported by various other agencies including the Dept. of State, Dept. of Defense (DOD), U.S. Drug Administration, Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency, in order to ensure implementation. Additionally, there is an interagency Biodefense Coordination Team that also engages with non-governmental stakeholders for a multi-disciplinary effort in implementing the Strategy.  Reassuringly, this interagency stakeholder collaboration began with the drafting of the Strategy by DOD, DHS, HHS, and Department of Agriculture that ensured support for a comprehensive One Health approach to health security.

Another notable change in the new Strategy is the emphasis on assessing the risks and benefits of biotechnologies and their leveraging for improved preparedness, with specific mention of using artificial intelligence. Because the previous biodefense policy was released prior to the current explosion in technological advancements, there had not been any mention of biotechnologies for either the improvement or detriment of health security.  Relating to biotechnologies, the new strategy also mentions the need to address ensuing cyber vulnerabilities, a point that resonates with the Trump Administration’s recent focus on improving U.S. cyber security as well as other experts in law enforcement calling for the new discipline of cyberbiosecurity.

To summarize the new Strategy, the five goals listed for the countering of biological threats are outlined below:

  1. Enable risk awareness to inform decision-making across the biodefense enterprise: aiming to improve detection and surveillance capabilities
  2. Ensure biodefense enterprise capabilities to prevent bioincidents: focusing on dual-use and intentional misuse of research and materials
  3. Ensure biodefense enterprise preparedness to reduce the impacts of bioincidents: encouraging multi-disciplinary collaboration “across country and internationally”
  4. Rapidly respond to limit to the impacts of the bioincidents: placing an emphasis on information sharing and networking, specifically aiming to strengthen effective public messaging (with the consideration of non-English speakers)
  5. Facilitate recovery to restore the community, the economy, and the environment after a bioincident: aiming to restore infrastructure and provide federal long-term mitigation efforts when necessary and possible

While the overall tone of prevention, detection, international collaboration, and inclusion of naturally-occurring and intentional biological threats remains unchanged from the previous Administration, the 2018 Trump Administration’s National Biodefense Strategy has addressed new concerns that have sprouted with changes in the current political, scientific, and physical environments. The comprehensive, interagency efforts in producing the document illustrate the commitment to engaging with all stakeholders in health security and ensure a holistic approach to combating the evolving biological threats that continue to transcend borders and species.


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