Against the backdrop of a spreading Ebola outbreak in Congo, where a worsening war has stymied U.S. aid amid increasing security concerns, the Trump administration is trying to wrap its arms around what is and isn’t working in biodefense against man-made, accidental, naturally occurring biological threats and emerging infectious diseases, said Tim Morrison, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense at the National Security Council (NSC).
“In addition to our aggressive efforts to contain Ebola, what we’re dealing with in Congo … is an active terrorist presence and a very destabilized security situation that’s constraining our work there,” Morrison told members of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense on Wednesday.
The current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest in the west African nation in over 40 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC recently reported that zero U.S. citizens are working in the northeastern Congo outbreak zone, although staff from the CDC and the U.S. Agency for International Development are stationed in Congo’s capital located roughly 1,000 miles away while the Trump administration mulls whether more personnel should be deployed to the center of the crisis, where numerous armed militias have made ongoing response efforts dangerous.
“I wish I could say we had more progress to report,” Morrison said during the Nov. 14 meeting held in Washington, D.C., by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which continues to assess the state of U.S. biodefense efforts. “But I think we would be in a far worse place today without the work done by the prior administration, the work of the private sector to develop a vaccine, and the kinds of intense leadership focus that we have put on biodefense.”
Morrison, the former policy director for the Republican staff on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee — who helped develop the U.S. government’s nuclear modernization program during the Obama administration — now is tasked with, among other duties, implementing the National Biodefense Strategy released earlier this year by the White House, as well as National Security Presidential Memoranda (NSPM) No. 14, which lays out the directives for supporting the biodefense strategy.
“Our definition of success is predicated on the idea that if the American people never have to think about biodefense, we’ve succeeded,” said Morrison referring to implementation of the National Biodefense Strategy.
“We do not want a scenario where the American people have to think about another global influenza pandemic along the lines of what their grandparents and great grandparents had to think about in 1918,” when the Spanish Flu pandemic infected some 500 million people across the globe and killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, according to the CDC.
Morrison said that U.S. President Donald Trump wants biothreats countered at their source. “From a humanitarian standpoint, we want to deal with an outbreak that causes great human suffering and generally destabilizes a security situation in a country … we want to deal with that there,” in the country where the disease outbreak originated, he said. “We don’t want to have to deal with Ebola here.”
When discussing biological incidents, Morrison said the administration is thinking about whether they are man-made, accidental or naturally occurring. “What they all have in common is that, even in the most remote areas of the world, they can spread rapidly and directly impact our citizens’ health, security and their prosperity,” he noted.
Ebola is something the federal government has been dealing with since 2014, said Morrison.
“The position we find ourselves in, based on the good work the Obama administration did at the time in dealing with a very aggressive outbreak, has helped to set us … with tools that the prior administration didn’t have,” he said.
One such tool is an Ebola vaccine, Morrison said, but dispersing it currently has proven difficult given the active terrorist presence in Congo that has created “a very destabilized security situation” and constrained response and recovery efforts.
Outlining the strategy
A U.S. Naval Reserve intelligence officer, Morrison outlined particulars about how the biodefense strategy will unfold.
“The administration is attempting to change the government’s approach to complex biological threats,” said Morrison, the lead presenter during the panel’s meeting on Wednesday, in reference to the National Biodefense Strategy. “For the first time we will be evaluating national biodefense needs and monitoring them … on an ongoing basis.”
Having arrived at his current job in July, Morrison said that “one of the first things that got stuck in my hand” was the panel’s 2015 A National Blueprint for Biodefense status report, from which two-thirds of the 33 panel recommendations made it into the recent national strategy, according to former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel with former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
“I had the same question that you all have asked,” Morrison told panel members. “What took so long?”
“There’s an old saying, ‘When we stand on the shoulders of giants, we can see further.’ I think that’s the case here because the work that the administration did on the biodefense strategy and the national security memorandum was very much informed by your work,” he said citing the panel’s report.
Morrison said he hopes their dialogue continues so that together, “we can figure out where are we succeeding in implementing the president’s strategy and where we need to do a little bit more work. And frankly, how can we work better with our partners, whether those partners are at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue [in Congress], or if those partners are state and local actors or the private sector.”
When the president signed NSPM 14, Morrison said, “I think he took a look at the 15 departments and agencies, the intelligence community and … the examples presented by the Bush administration and the Obama administration and said, ‘Ok, how do we go further? What do we really need to do to build on the examples of the prior administration’s efforts, but also what we’ve learned since then from Ebola in 2014? What we learned from Ebola in 2016, and what we learned from Zika, and MERS and SARS and anthrax? How do we take a step to really build on the kind of challenges that the Blue Ribbon Panel highlights?’”
The resulting strategy, he said, for the first time presents a leader on biodefense strategy for the federal government: the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “who essentially will be the first among equals — among the heads of the departments and agencies — chairing the Biodefense Steering Committee to harness all the activities of the federal government in the biodefense space. But he will also be the official charged with coordinating the range of activities that include the state and local sector, and that include the private sector,” Morrison explained.
One of the things in the new biodefense strategy “that we’re particularly proud of,” he added, “and which sets this strategy apart from some of the prior work, is the reliance on innovation; engaging the private sector in harnessing what technology can do to help the United States deal with biodefense challenges.”
Joining the HHS Secretary in oversight is Morrison’s boss, the assistant to the president for national security affairs, a.k.a. the National Security Advisor, who will take the product developed by the biodefense steering committee and lead a process to assess the nation’s capabilities and prioritize biodefense actions across the U.S. government.
The process to be led by the HHS Secretary and National Security Advisor has five key roles, Morrison explained, which are to: assess biological risks; ensure capabilities to prevent biological incidents; prepare to reduce the impacts of biological incidents; respond rapidly to biological incidents; and to recover after biological incidents.
Also, for first time, the biodefense strategy will be linked to the annual federal budget process.
“That is, frankly, where we feel we will need help,” Morrison told the Blue Ribbon Study Panel members. “We will need to help our partners in the private sector and our partners in Congress understand that they play a role in biodefense that perhaps they’ve never previously understood.”
As a special assistant to the president, Morrison said the nation’s biodefense strategy is very much informed by accountability.
For instance, for the implementation of the biodefense strategy, he explained, the NSPM assigns roles and responsibilities, defines end states (what success looks like for each subpart of the biodefense strategy and NSPM), milestones (which are time-bound, resource-informed actions that will be taken to achieve each end state, but which aren’t necessarily resource-bound), and metrics (the indicators that will tell the group when the milestones have been met).
“The first opportunity for the Blue Ribbon Study Panel to evaluate our success will come in January or February  when we meet the 120-day implementation deadline provided by the NSPM,” said Morrison. “That will be the president’s first opportunity to grade us and that’ll be your first opportunity to grade us as to how we are implementing the implementation plan in response to the NSPM.”
Panel co-chairmen Ridge and Lieberman asked Morrison if BioWatch, the current U.S. government program to detect the release of pathogens into the air as part of a terrorist attack on American cities, would or could be replaced. The panel members advocate for doing so as they’ve determined that BioWatch is a failing enterprise.
“I feel it’s never really lived up to its expectations,” Lieberman said. “Its ineffectiveness could and will leave us much more exposed.”
“BioWatch hasn’t worked, isn’t working, and cannot be remedied,” added Ridge, pointing to the program’s reliance on old technology and its labor-intensiveness. “I think it’s outlived its usefulness.”
Specifically, Lieberman said public information released by the U.S. Department of Defense says it’s developing new federal biodetection systems that would be more effective. “Can you report on whether this is a priority for you?” he asked Morrison.
Morrison said he would rather not comment on a specific program at this time, however, he said “this is why we settled on” the strategy’s prioritization and accountability processes, as well as the role that will be played by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) related to future funding. He said the administration intends to look at everything being done annually in biodefense across all agencies to ensure taxpayer money is being used as effectively as possible.
“Once we get the budget,” he added, “we’ll have more we can say about how we’ve chosen to prioritize biodefense actions.”
Morrison told the panel members that the NSPM and National Biodefense Strategy are the president’s precise directions on how he wants to move forward.
“President Trump lets us know very clearly and directly what his expectations are,” he said, “and he’s not shy about holding us accountable.”