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Oct. 28 — The U.S. vice president’s office should assume authority over biodefense efforts, a blue ribbon panel recommended in a report released Oct. 28.
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense called for a comprehensive strategy and a unified budget to confront intentionally introduced, accidentally released and naturally occurring biological threats.
“We need one person—a leader with the charge, authority, vision and expertise—to pull together more than a dozen departments and agencies, as well as the private sector, to defend against biological threats to the nation,” said former governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the panel with former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
“We looked at all the alternatives. God forbid we have another czar,” Lieberman said, referring to government positions that have been called the “energy czar” and the “Ebola czar.” The panel thought the best approach was for the president to designate the vice president to be the coordinator of biodefense efforts and have budgetary authority for biodefense, Lieberman said.
Ridge also suggested that under the report's unified approach, the vice president as biodefense coordinator could designate that some money currently budgeted for the National Institutes of Health be assigned to other biodefense-related activities.
“Some of the money being given to the NIH could be more effectively spent elsewhere if it was decided that moving it was consistent with a national plan and not just with an institutional plan,” Ridge said. “The NIH shouldn't set the agenda but, under the plan, the vice president and his office should.”
The privately funded panel was formed to recommend changes to U.S. policy and law in order to strengthen national biodefense while optimizing resources.
In addition to co-chairs Lieberman and Ridge, panel members are former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala; former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-N.D.); former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), who is also the president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Industry Organization; and Kenneth Wainstein, first assistant attorney general for national security and homeland security adviser to former President George W. Bush. The Hudson Institute and the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies are institutional sponsors of the panel.
The report, which is titled “A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts,” has 33 recommendations and nearly 100 action items. It details America’s vulnerability to bioterrorism and deadly outbreaks and emphasizes transforming the way the U.S. government is organized to confront these threats.
Discussing the panel's first and main recommendation that biodefense be institutionalized in the office of the vice president, Ridge said, “As a member of the White House staff, the vice president can see where there are redundancies and can utilize the resources of the White House. We have an Ebola czar and the assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the Department of Health and Human Services, and they're good people. But they just have a slice of the responsibilities. We need political muscularity to get this done, someone who has more traction than just one member of the National Security Council who has responsibility for WMD [weapons of mass destruction].”
In addition to recommendations for unified leadership and budget, the panel also suggested establishing a White House Biodefense Coordination Council; strengthening state, local, territorial and tribal capabilities; and promoting innovation through sustained biodefense prioritization and funding.
Many of the action items detail the need to elevate collaboration, including optimizing and implementing national biosurveillance, supporting emergency preparedness, improving information sharing between federal and local governments and fully funding the Public Health Emergency Preparedness cooperative agreement.
Also, the panel suggested creating incentives for hospital preparedness and implementing a medical countermeasure response framework. It also made recommendations to secure pathogens against cyber attacks, re-engage with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and increase military-civilian collaboration for biodefense.
• prioritizing innovation over incrementalism in medical countermeasure development;
• fully funding medical countermeasure efforts by reinstating Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority contracting authorities, and providing an advance appropriation to authorized levels for the BioShield Special Reserve Fund and better incentives for developing countermeasures;
• developing a renewed focus on the need for rapid diagnostics;
• prioritizing the development of a fully functional environmental detection system to replace BioWatch, which is designed to detect the release of pathogens into the air as part of a terrorist attack on major American cities; and
• instituting a review and overhaul of the Select Agent Program, which oversees the possession, use and transfer of biological select agents and toxins that could pose a severe threat to public, animal or plant health or to animal or plant products.
In his remarks, Lieberman said, “We've spent $6 billion on biodefense, but the panel doesn't think we're anywhere near where we need to be. The response to the Ebola outbreak last year was unacceptable. We remember what seemed to be the uncertainty of leadership in that crisis, and human errors were made. And all of this happened after we had 10 months to prepare. The next outbreak probably won't give us 10 months.”
Ridge said, “I have enormous respect for the NIH, and I am grateful for what they've done in Ebola basic research. But I saw Ebola on the danger list in 2001, and we still don't have an effective countermeasure. I appreciate the value of the basic research, but we need a sense of urgency.”
Asked what he would do if the president accepted the plan and he were the vice president, Lieberman said, “First, I would figure out where all the pieces are and then where the money is. People have to work together. There is still some of the silo mentality nonsense that the 9/11 Commission found had been going on. And we need a unified budget for the vice president, or whoever is in charge, to see that there is already plenty over here but we need more over here. Unified leadership would be able to shift resources to higher priorities for the country.”
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