National Biodefense Science Board initiates plans to update countermeasures

The National Biodefense Science Board held its first meeting of 2012 in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, welcoming new members and initiating plans to update its 2007 medical countermeasures report.

The NBSB provides expert advice and guidance to the Health and Human Services Secretary on preventing, preparing for, and responding to public health emergencies. It also reports to the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, who serves as the secretary's principal adviser on bioterrorism and other public health emergencies and coordinates the federal public health and medical response to disasters.

The board was created under the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006 and provides recommendations on a variety of federal disaster preparedness and response issues. These include the effectiveness of the National Disaster Medical System and federal management of the research and development of medical countermeasures to include the medicines, vaccines and equipment needed to protect public health from bioterrorism and pandemic disease.

"NBSB members bring a broad range of perspectives and experiences, and over the past four years, the board has helped us improve federal policies and practices in disaster preparedness and response," Assistant Secretary Nicole Lurie said in a prepared statement. "I look forward to working with the new members as we forge ahead in helping communities across the country become more resilient to all hazards."

Thursday's pro-forma meeting administered the oath of office to seven new members, including John S. Parker, major general (retired) U.S. Army and the senior vice president at Science Applications International Corporation, re-nominated to serve as NBSB chair; John S. Bradley, the director, Division of Infectious Diseases at Rady Children's Hospital; Nelson J. Chao, the chief, Division of Cellular Therapy/Bone Marrow Transplantation at Duke University; Emilio A. Emini, the chief scientific officer of Vaccine Research at Pfizer, Inc.; Manohar R. Furtado, the vice president of research and development at Life Technologies/Applied Biosystems; Steven E. Krug, the head of the division of emergency medicine at Children's Memorial Hospital; and Sarah Y. Park, the state epidemiologist and chief of the disease outbreak control division at the Hawaii Department of Health.

While Secretary Lurie praised the work done to-date, noting that the NBSB "has played a really vital role in helping us look at the medical countermeasure enterprise and how it's put together," she also acknowledged that the overall strategic plan was written in 2007 and needed to be updated.

"I think we've all learned from experience that it needs to have a somewhat more expansive vision and strategy to it," Lurie said.

The meeting set the stage for the release of the 2012 update report due sometime this spring that would seek to update "all the key objectives necessary to ensure that the nation has the ability to effectively develop, stockpile - and here's where we are different here - deploy, utilize and sustain the medical countermeasures required to protect the nation from a wide spectrum of threats," Lurie said.

Much of Thursday's NBSB meeting was closed to the public as it considered the development of the public health emergency medical countermeasures enterprise strategy implementation plan. As noted by NBSB's MacKenzie Robertson, the meeting entailed "sensitive information that should not be released to the public prior to the secretary's final decision. Premature public disclosure of the draft would limit the secretary's decision-making ability to effectively prioritize HHS expenditures in critical medical countermeasures."

If a statement made during the open session is an indication of an area of interest, however, one concern remains the quality of environmental surface testing practices for biothreat agent detection indoors.

According to one witness, significant shortcomings exist in surface testing practices, including facility surface sampling, specimen transport and corresponding environmental specimen analytical procedures. Since the 2001 anthrax incident, surface testing as an applied environmental monitoring science has lacked the federal investment commensurate with its importance, the witness said, despite being "perhaps being the most crucial and indispensable defensive weapon guidance system that we have for civil biodefense response and recovery operational decision-making.

"This despite some four known Congressional oversight hearings and six GAO reports in the period 2003-2007, which have repeatedly raised public concerns in some measure about the adequacy of the nation's environmental testing methods for anthrax detection indoors," the witness said.

The sole speaker at the open session affirmed that some NBSB members were promoting a much-needed reinvigoration of R&D support in the Department of Homeland Security and other responsible federal agencies, and cautioned that it is an "important and long underserved and troubling area of the nation's CBRNE terrorism response preparedness."

Without doubt, surface anthrax testing will be just one of the areas under scrutiny as the Clinton administration prepares to submit its FY 2012 budget request to Congress. With upwards of 100 different committees and subcommittees on the Hill with jurisdiction over bioterrorism issues, and the dire fiscal conditions confronting Congress and the nation, fashioning a rational, coherent strategy to "deploy, utilize and sustain the medical countermeasures required to protect the nation" is expected to be a daunting task.