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Sunday, October 2nd, 2022

RAND’s Gerstein: U.S. needs biodefense strategy to protect against terror threats

Daniel Gerstein

The U.S. government has become “somewhat complacent” in preparing for potential bioterrorist attacks and needs to implement a national biodefense strategy, Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at the nonpartisan RAND Corporation, recently told Homeland Preparedness News.

The anthrax attacks of 2001 generated much discussion in government about how the U.S. should better prepare for and defend itself against bioterrorism.

“But over the intervening 15 years or so, we haven’t had any major bioterror attacks so this sort of leaves the public’s consciousness and that’s when complacency sets in,” Gerstein, who served as acting under secretary and deputy under secretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011-2014, said. “Even some of our government elements have become somewhat complacent.”

The U.S. government has not had a comprehensive biodefense strategy since 2004 under the Bush administration, Gerstein said, when President George W. Bush issued a Homeland Security directive that detailed the nation’s biodefense system and assigned responsibilities for those efforts to federal agencies.

Gerstein said that the U.S. government’s handling of the Ebola crisis in 2014, however, showed how unprepared the nation is for a large-scale biological disaster.

Legislation that would require the United States to develop a comprehensive national biodefense strategy to help prevent and respond to a bioterrorist attack or public health emergency was introduced in the Senate in May and was recently placed on the Senate legislative calendar.

The proposed legislation comes as terror groups affiliated with ISIS make attempts to weaponize biological agents.

Kenyan Police said in late August that they arrested two more people accused of being part of an Islamic State group extremist cell of medics attempting to launch a biological attack in Kenya using anthrax, according to the Associated Press.

The alleged leader of the cell, Mohammed Abdi Ali, a medical intern in Makueni county, and his wife, a medical student in Uganda, were arrested in May. At that time, local police said that the ISIS-linked terror group was planning to carry out “large-scale attacks” in Kenya comparable to the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack that left dozens of people dead, NBC News reports.

One of the issues facing a potential bioterrorist is the skill needed to acquire a pathogen, weaponize it and deploy the biological weapon, but the proliferation of biotechnology around the world increases the pressure on governments to strengthen their biodefense strategies.

Gerstein had previously testified to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, a group of government officials and national security experts that analyzed how prepared the United States is to defend against biological threats. The panel submitted its National Blueprint for Biodefense to Congress in October 2015 with recommendations and reforms.

“They identified the biggest point that I think is relevant, which is we lack leadership in this country on this issue,” Gerstein said. “It is spread throughout so many cabinet level departments and state and local entities. It would definitely benefit from someone who is directly in charge and has the ability to cause resources to be allocated.”