By Tom Ridge
and Joseph Lieberman
Our elected leaders have no greater responsibility than to protect and safeguard the American people. That imperative guided us when we served in public office after September 2001. Although the government has successfully addressed many homeland security challenges since then, the United States is unfortunately still underprepared to confront the biological threat.
Each day, we face the possibility of an infectious disease outbreak, an intentional bioterror attack, or an accidental release of a pathogen from a research facility. Naturally occurring biothreats such as Ebola are bypassing borders to emerge on our shores. Terrorist groups like the Islamic State are devastating the Middle East while endorsing biological warfare and threatening to attack our homeland. Man-made threats are also occurring here at home in the form of safety and security lapses in our nation's laboratories involving agents like anthrax.
With the right approach in place, we can prevent some of these instances and reduce the risk of others. But as recent events demonstrate, we are not prepared. That is why we convened the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense in 2014 - with former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Rep. Jim Greenwood, and former homeland security adviser Ken Wainstein - to examine the national state of defense against biological attacks and infectious diseases and determine where we are falling short and what can be done about it.
Throughout a series of public meetings in 2014 and this year, we scrutinized the spectrum of biodefense activities by Republican and Democratic administrations. We identified substantial achievements but also found serious gaps that leave the homeland vulnerable.
The American people witnessed recent evidence of these gaps when the entry of Ebola into the United States resulted in significant confusion over roles and responsibilities. They also saw it when a massive outbreak of avian influenza hit the Midwest poultry industry in the total absence of vaccine or other medical countermeasures to combat it.
Our panel determined that the United States remains vulnerable to such threats because we lack strong centralized leadership at the highest level of government. No single individual is given the charge and authority to corral the dozen responsible departments and agencies into a cohesive and effective whole.
We identified three primary symptoms that result from this lack of leadership: insufficient coordination across the federal government; inadequate focus on collaboration with and support for nonfederal stakeholders who handle critical activities like surveillance and response; and a risk aversion that is stifling the innovative solutions required to solve challenging technological and governance problems.
These symptoms are not abstract. If they were rectified, hospitals would have the guidance they need to handle Ebola, city governments would have the support necessary to mass-dispense medical countermeasures, and industry would have the incentives and direction required to solve our greatest challenges in countermeasure development and biodetection technology.
The nation needs a top-level leader who recognizes the severity of the biological threat and possesses the authority and political will to defend against it. We recommend that this leader be the vice president, the person who has a direct line to the president and, when imbued with the proper authority, can act on the president's behalf. The vice president should establish a White House Biodefense Coordination Council, unify the biodefense budget, and develop a national strategy for biodefense.
With this foundation in place, dozens of problematic areas can begin to be solved. We can improve our ability to detect pathogens by recognizing that the current technology - BioWatch - is not meeting the need and by leveraging the ingenuity of industry and other partners to develop a new solution, even if that necessitates an investment risk. We can make simple changes to the way contracts are processed that could decrease the time to field countermeasures, with no cutbacks in safety or efficacy testing. And we can establish a nationally notifiable animal disease system to help detect the next outbreak.
Our report provides 33 recommendations that we believe will advance our status as a prepared nation, from enhanced intelligence collection, to protection of pathogen data and cybersecurity, to overhaul of the Select Agent Program, to U.S.-led international efforts in public-health response and biological-weapons diplomacy.
In our report, which we are issuing Wednesday, we offer specific and practical legislative, policy, and programmatic actions to fix vulnerabilities. It is a blueprint for better biodefense. The members of our panel are committed to working together until we make sure our country and people are adequately protected.
Tom Ridge was the nation's first secretary of homeland security and the 43d governor of Pennsylvania. Former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman spent six years as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
To read the report, visit www.biodefensestudy.org.