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Monday, September 26th, 2022

GAO report details challenges to defend U.S. against biological threats

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently identified several challenges related to the nation’s ability to detect and respond to biological events. These hurdles transcend what any one federal department or agency can individually address.

The GAO found four precarious areas, including assessing enterprise-wide threats; situational awareness and data integration; biodetection technologies; and biological laboratory safety and security, according to a study released earlier this summer that discussed GAO reports issued from December 2009 through March 2019 on various biological threats and biodefense efforts.

“Catastrophic biological events have the potential to cause loss of life and sustained damage to the economy, societal stability, and global security,” said Chris P. Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice at the GAO. He told the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security in June that, “Among those biological threats is the unpredictable nature of naturally occurring disease, which could affect human and animal health and agricultural security. Further, while the revolution in biotechnology presents opportunities to advance the life sciences, that same technology in the wrong hands could be used to create crippling biological weapons.”

Catastrophic biological events have the potential to cause loss of life and sustained damage to the economy, societal stability, and global security.

In 2011, the GAO reported that there was no broad, integrated national strategy that encompassed all stakeholders with biodefense responsibilities. The organization called for the development of a national biodefense strategy. Since that time, efforts have been made to coordinate and collaborate across the complex interagency, intergovernmental, and intersectoral biodefense enterprise. Although in October 2017, the GAO found there was no existing mechanism across the federal government that could leverage threat awareness information to direct resources and set budgetary priorities across all agencies for biodefense, the organization said a new biodefense strategy may address this.

In September 2018, the White House released a National Biodefense Strategy. However, because implementation of the strategy is in early stages, it remains to be seen how or to what extent the agencies responsible for implementation will institutionalize mechanisms to help the nation make the best use of limited biodefense resources. The GAO is currently reviewing the strategy and will release a report later this year.

When it comes to situational awareness and data integration, the GAO reported in 2009 and 2015 that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) — created to integrate data across the federal government to enhance detection and situational awareness of biological events — has suffered from longstanding challenges related to its clarity of purpose and collaboration with other agencies. DHS implemented GAO’s 2009 recommendation to develop a strategy, but in 2015 GAO found NBIC continued to face complications, such as limited partner participation in the center’s activities.

The GAO reports that DHS has faced biodetection technologies challenges in clearly justifying the need for and establishing the capabilities of the BioWatch program — a system designed to detect an aerosolized biological terrorist attack. In October 2015, the GAO recommended that DHS not pursue upgrades until it takes steps to establish BioWatch’s technical capabilities. While DHS agreed and described a series of tests to establish these capabilities, it continued to pursue upgrades, according to the press release.

Since 2008, the GAO has identified challenges and areas for improvement related to the safety, security, and oversight of high-containment laboratories, which, among other things, conduct research on hazardous pathogens, such as the Ebola virus. The GAO recommended that agencies take actions to avoid safety and security lapses at laboratories, such as better assessing risks, coordinating inspections, and reporting inspection results. Many recommendations have been addressed, but others remain open, such as finalizing guidance on documenting the shipment of dangerous biological material.

“The biological threat landscape is vast and requires a multidisciplinary approach,” Currie said. “The biodefense enterprise is the whole combination of systems at every level of government and the private sector that contribute to protecting the nation and its citizens from potentially catastrophic effects of a biological event.”