The global spread of a deadly disease outbreak during a biological attack would impact far more than U.S. government financial resources, former federal lawmakers say, and could crash the coffers of local and state budgets just as severely.
“We know unequivocally that terrorists have the desire to create and use pathogens as weapons,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA), who chaired a special focus meeting of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., on July 31 to discuss the impacts of large-scale biological events on the American economy.
“Globalization has empowered the modern bioterrorist,” said Greenwood, pointing out that some business leaders understand the importance of focusing on such biothreats. However, “too few have taken steps to prepare for the spread of diseases that could bring their business operations to a halt and result in significant financial losses,” he said.
Members of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, established in 2014 to assess gaps and provide recommendations to improve biodefense, have consistently reported that the United States is underprepared for biothreats and doesn’t afford them the same level of attention as it does to other threats.
“There has to be a plan in place and you have to put somebody in charge or the economic consequences are going to be enormous,” said former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), who is a panel co-chairman with former GOP Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who later served as the nation’s first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In a July 31 CNBC interview prior to the Blue Ribbon event, Lieberman said he’s “become increasingly convinced that we have to fear not just the biological attack from terrorists, but an outbreak naturally of an infectious disease epidemic.”
An emerging infectious disease pandemic that threatened the lives of millions of people, he added, “would have a devastating effect on our economy. So it’s important to spend a little upfront to prevent and be prepared to respond to these threats.”
Businesses are an important part of this strategy, said Blue Ribbon panel member Tom Daschle, former Democratic Senate majority leader who represented South Dakota. “We’ve got to have a private-public partnership,” he said. “The private sector has a huge role to play, but we need to send the right message to the private sector about the importance of multi-year funding, about the importance of being able to count on the federal government being a full-fledged partner.
“And they don’t have that assurance today,” Daschle said.
Lieberman added that the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense report recommends that the vice president of the United States be designated as the person in charge of biodefense. With that role filled, the United States “will be better prepared to not only save lives … but a lot of our economy,” he said. “A biological terrorist attack would break confidence, hurt commerce, and hurt the economy.”
Panel Co-Chair Ridge, in an Aug. 1 telephone interview with a South Dakota Public Broadcasting radio station, said there are “more contagions out there than we probably appreciate.”
“We are not as prepared as we need to be for the next pandemic,” said Ridge. “We don’t have the public policies, nor the leadership to deal with it. And we don’t have the budget we need in Congress.”
During the first discussion of the day-long Blue Ribbon meeting on Tuesday, Ridge added that “unless and until we bring fundamental changes … we will continue to be under prepared” to identify, respond and mitigate such costly national security threats.
What feds must prioritize
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, agreed with his former colleagues on the Blue Ribbon panel that putting leadership in charge to address biothreats is important.
“But the bottom line,” Sen. Johnson said, “is that we first have to make it a priority to make the public aware of how serious all of these threats are,” including biothreats. In turn, that awareness will drive public consciousness and create public pressure on federal lawmakers to reform the appropriations process to include related policies and funding.
The senator commended the panel for the work it has done thus far to raise awareness about America’s need for a biodefense strategy, but he said he’s not optimistic about the end goal.
“We are not addressing this properly,” said Johnson, who also serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European and Regional Security Cooperation and is a member of both the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
Coming from the private sector prior to serving in Congress, Johnson said there’s “not much of a problem-solving skill set in Washington,” where politicians exploit divisions. “They don’t know how to sell ideas and market problems and solutions.”
At the same time, despite efforts in Congress and recommendations from the Blue Ribbon panel, he said there’s still no national biodefense strategy. “We’ve been at this for decades,” Sen. Johnson told panel members, likening the situation to the federal government being stuck standing in the path of a slow-moving bus without any plan for how to get out of its way.
And fast action is paramount, he said, pointing to not only military biothreats from U.S. adversaries and nation states, but to advancing technology use by terrorists and other bad actors.
For example, crop dusting drones exist that can be directed using GPS to “very effectively deliver a biothreat” into a jam-packed stadium. “And we have no countermeasure,” he said.
Senate biodefense efforts
The federal government and private sector should be equal partners in biodefense, said U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), co-chairman of the Senate Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Caucus and a member of the Senate National Security Working Group.
“Both our government and the private sector bring something to the table,” said Casey, who also serves as a subcommittee ranking member for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
The Senate HELP Committee in June sent its final version of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2018, S. 2852, to the full Senate, which will reconcile the measure with the same-named H.R. 6378, which is still being considered by several House committees.
Sen. Casey introduced S. 2852 on May 15 with bill sponsor U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the senior HELP Committee member who introduced both Senate versions of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA) — the original bill, which became law in 2006, and the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013, which became law that same year.
During the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense meeting, Casey said the S. 2852 reauthorization includes new initiatives to improve the nation’s biodefense capabilities, such as those that strengthen public-private partnerships, bolster disease detection, and improve U.S. hospitals and the medical countermeasures enterprise.
For example, the senator said lawmakers learned from the 2009 swine flu outbreak that a pandemic would begin at the doors of hospitals and medical centers, many of which are private. U.S. disease detection networks were caught off-guard, Sen. Casey said, and “the viral strain with a potential to cause a pandemic was circulating for months before we could ramp up production of a vaccine.”
Therefore, in drafting S. 2852, the senators included language stipulating that private facilities would need to share information from their health care providers on symptoms and diagnoses with federal agencies.
“In many cases, they hold the information the federal government needs to protect the nation,” said Casey. “So we built on the work of the 21st Century Cures Act, which created a process for HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] to collaborate with private stakeholders, like hospitals and health care entities, on developing goals for these disease detection systems and to find standards for data collection and sharing that will allow the systems to function.”
S. 2852 also would authorize the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) to develop regional hospital systems in direct partnership with private-sector partners and would fund demonstration projects to test the capacity of these systems, the senator explained.
“This will ensure that communities and their health care infrastructures are prepared for a range of public health threats,” Casey said, adding that input from the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense on how to create this system was vital to drafting this provision and others in S. 2852.
Additionally, S. 2852 would permit investments in medical response, treatment capabilities and manufacturing infrastructure to begin to reduce the time it takes to produce large quantities of vaccines or therapeutics.
Sen. Casey said the bill “signifies that public-private partnerships are important to the government and incentivizes the private sector to dedicate time and resources to developing the products we need for biodefense.”
“They both need to be equal partners and shoulder the responsibility of biodefense,” Casey said. “We know we are generally better prepared than we were before, but we still lag behind in biological preparedness. It’s in the best interest of our national security for the public and private sector to work together.”