Expert says nation unprepared for biological attack

As the full U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee prepares for its October 28 hearing to assess the state of the nation’s biodefense, a voice from the field already has weighed in on the topic.

“Biodefense lacks centralized leadership," Asha M. George, director of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, recently told BioPrepWatch. "The entire enterprise is poorly coordinated, lacks for innovation and misses opportunities for collaboration."

High-profile members of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense — former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Gov. Tom Ridge — will be testifying before the Senate committee next week and the group plans to release a related report on the same day as the scheduled hearing.

“The good news, however, is that we can take action now, before we are forced into an emergency situation that takes lives before we have a chance to get organized,” George said.

The bipartisan biodefense panel’s report contains recommended changes to U.S. policy and law designed to strengthen national biodefense and optimize resource investments. George said the report specifically provides 33 recommendations, as well as more than 100 associated action items, to address these issues and dramatically improve biodefense.

George also explained that the nation faces a number of different types of threats; and while the cyber threat, for example, continues to be a problem, it isn’t as pressing a matter as that posed by a biological threat.

“While some may argue that we must dedicate more resources to address the cyber threat than the biological threat, I would argue the opposite,” George said. “I think the biological threat is cause for greater concern specifically because it is so obvious that we are not doing much about it and because so many more people do not pay attention to it until an event occurs."

While there are a number of public and private sector activities for biodefense underway, George thinks they are insufficient to meet the need. At the same time, because all of these activities have been undertaken by so many different agencies, “it is difficult to develop a coherent understanding of what all is happening,” she added.

This situation also makes reporting difficult unless a biological event occurs, George said.

“It is important to understand that there is a spectrum of activities that comprise biodefense,” she said, including prevention, deterrence, preparedness, detection, response, attribution, recovery and mitigation.