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The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee takes up the issue of America’s biodefenses in a hearing today on Capitol Hill. This is a serious topic worthy of Senate review precisely because so much has been done to prepare America from both a biological attack and a natural pandemic, and yet so much remains to be done.

A report on biosecurity (PDF) published by the Center for American Progress last week, “Biosecurity: A Comprehensive Action Plan,” details why the United States must develop more systematic and comprehensive solutions to the biological security threats facing our nation. This argument was also made by panelists at a Center for American Progress luncheon conference last week.

The report was presented by Jonathan Tucker, a co-author and a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Joining him as discussants were Laura Segal, public affairs director at the Trust for America’s Health, and David Heyman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Andrew Grotto, the other co-author of the report and a senior national security analyst at the Center, moderated the discussion.

The twin threats of bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases share many common characteristics. According to the panel, the United States must leverage these commonalities to create a more effective and efficient strategy for countering these threats. “Our ability to address biothreats must be comprehensive in nature,” Heyman said, and not dependent on “stovepipe” solutions that are localized, separate, and fragmented.

Current federal plans assume state and local capabilities that do not exist, according to Segal. “If a pandemic hit,” she said, “it would bankrupt the U.S. medical system.” The panel used the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an example of how our current public health system is inadequately prepared for sudden shocks. With enhanced communication and cooperation across all levels, the situation would improve, but currently “there is no standard across systems,” according to Heyman.

For biothreats, “the best defense,” Grotto said, “is a good public health system.” In the event of a crisis, hospitals and local health departments are the first line of defense. Right now a complicated system of diverse public and private institutions creates significant interoperability problems. The U.S. must develop synchronized federal, state, and local systems to create a truly comprehensive approach for diminishing biothreats.

The need for a comprehensive plan is important on an international level as well, because, as Heyman points out, “Bugs don’t know political boundaries.” Effectively implementing international health standards, especially in developing countries, is important to U.S. biosecurity. Effective international nonproliferation programs for biological weapons are also key. According to Tucker, research on dangerous pathogens is too open and widespread, and an international consensus on pathogen security is needed. Risks also exist from rogue scientists of former state-sponsored bioweapons programs.

Current policies are inadequate, relying on “a hope and pray attitude,” according to Segal. There is an over-reliance on a “one bug, one drug” approach that holds specific pharmaceuticals as a primary defense against biothreats. A “broad spectrum” comprehensive approach “could be more cost-effective,” especially because an improved public health system would better handle common diseases. Whether an epidemic disease or a terrorist attack, the possibility of a major health crisis means, said Heyman, “We have to take care of ourselves together.”

For more information on the views and analysis of the participants in the conference, please see the Center’s video presentation of the speakers.

Resources

Video

Note: All video provided in QuickTime (MPEG-4) format.

For more information on the Center’s report, “Biosecurity: A Comprehensive Action Plan,” please go to the following link:

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