An industry-sponsored report claims the US is woefully underprepared for bioterrorism threats, and it's probably right
The report, which was produced by a bipartisan panel chaired by former Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Secretary of Homeland Security Thomas Ridge, calls for a more centralized approach to protecting against bioweapons, naturally arising infectious diseases, and lab accidents.
The report reads:
The United States is underprepared for biological threats. Nation states and unaffiliated terrorists (via biological terrorism) and nature itself (via emerging and reemerging infectious diseases) threaten us. While biological events may be inevitable, their level of impact on our country is not.
We convened the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense to assess how much has been done to address the biological threat and what remains undone. Despite significant progress on several fronts, the Nation is dangerously vulnerable to a biological event. The root cause of this continuing vulnerability is the lack of strong centralized leadership at the highest level of government.
The authors made a number of specific recommendations, including:
- Centralizing biodefense efforts under the leadership of the Vice President, and naming a biodefense "czar"
- Developing and implementing a comprehensive national biodefense strategy
- Creating a better system for detecting environmental threats
- Doing a "major reassessment" of the Select Agent Program, which oversees use of dangerous biological agents or toxins, such as Ebola or anthrax
A number of infectious disease experts we spoke with agreed with the underlying message that the US is not doing enough to prepare for the threat of biowarfare or diseases in nature, as we saw with the response to the recent deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which infected health care workers on US soil.
But some took issue with the fact that the report was sponsored in part by the biodefense industry, including the companies Pharmathene, Emergent, and SIGA Biotechnologies, which all contract with the US government.
A wish list for industry?
"This is a committee that's linked to representing the interests of defense contractors," Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, told Business Insider, going so far as to call the report's recommendations a "Christmas wish list" for the defense contracting industry.
Ebright said the biosecurity threat is real, but the report exaggerates the risk and diverts resources away from existing efforts. "There are currently immense resources devoted to this issue," he said. But the report's recommendations "meet the needs of defense, not the interests of the American public."
But Harvey Rubin, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and former member of the NSABB, a government panel whose job is to recommend policies for research on dangerous biological agents, felt differently. He said the report was well-done, and didn't think it was influenced by the contractors who sponsored it.
Nevertheless, "This is not how I would have done the report; I would not have taken support from companies," Rubin told Business Insider.
Even though the sponsors included more companies than nonprofit foundations, 75% of the funds came from foundations, Panel Co-director Ellen Carlin told Business Insider.
The report also stressed the need to think bigger and invest in biodefense technologies that don't exist yet.
The BioWatch program, founded in 2003, is more than a decade old. "In 1960, we didn't have rockets capable of going to the moon," Carlin said. "What we have now for environmental detection is not good enough. Until you call for that, it's not going to happen."
But Ebright dismissed this as "Star Trek" science, worrying it could divert funding away from existing efforts to monitor biological threats.
One thing everyone agreed on was the need for more coordination between the biodefense efforts of different federal agencies.
But coordinating efforts at the national level is not enough, Rubin said. "We've been saying all along that this in an international problem."
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