Center for American Progress

Countering Pandemic Disease and Biological Terrorism

Countering Pandemic Disease and Biological Terrorism

The United States must develop more systematic and comprehensive solutions to the biological security threats facing our nation. This refrain, heard from panelists at a Center for American Progress event today, built from a report on biosecurity released at the discussion.

Panelists included the co-authors of the report, Andrew Grotto, senior national security analyst at the Center, and Jonathan Tucker from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Joining them were Laura Segal, public affairs director at the Trust for America’s Health, and David Heyman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The threats of bioterrorism and epidemic disease share many common characteristics, and according to the panel, the United States needs to appreciate those commonalities in order to create a more efficient and effective crisis response plan. “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 improved 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.”


Jonathan B. Tucker is a Senior Fellow in the Washington, D.c=, office of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), where he specializes in biological and chemical weapons issues. He is the author of War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al Qaeda (Pantheon Books, 2006) and Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox (Grove Atlantic, 2001). Prior to joining CNS in March 1996, Dr. Tucker was an arms control specialist with the U.S. government. He also served on a United Nations biological weapons inspection team in Iraq in February 1995. Dr. Tucker holds a B.S. in biology from Yale University and a Ph.D. in political science with a concentration in defense and arms control studies from M.I.T. The policy recommendations and opinions expressed in the report do not imply the endorsement of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

David Heyman leads CSIS's homeland security efforts on strategy, policy, research, and education. He is a leading expert on bioterrorism, critical infrastructure protection, and risk-based security. Prior to joining CSIS, he served as a senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy from 1998 to 2001 and the head of the Department of Energy's Technology Transfer Task Force. From 1995 to 1998, he worked at the White House in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, National Security and International Affairs Division, coordinating U.S. policies, programs, and budgets related to international cooperation in science and technology. Heyman's publications include DHS 2.0: Rethinking the Department of Homeland Security (2004), Lessons from the Anthrax Attacks (2002), and most recently Model Operational Guidelines for Disease Exposure Control (2005), a treatise on how to protect public health in a pandemic when no medical countermeasures are available.

Laura Segal oversees public affairs, communications, and policy research for Trust for America's Health (TFAH). She brings over a decade of strategic communications to TFAH. Prior to joining TFAH, Segal directed corporate communications for Health Venture Partners, Sigma Networks, and Charitableway. She worked for the Clinton/Gore campaigns and administration from 1992-2000 in a variety of capacities, including on the 1992 and 1996 campaigns, in the White House, in the Presidential Transition and Inaugural Offices, as a press secretary and speechwriter to the U.S. Secretary of Education, and for the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Segal also served as Executive Director of a new initiative for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to start a communications, events, and fundraising effort for the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy. She has also served as a contributing columnist and political analyst with United Press International. Laura began her career as an intern at CNN and in field production at C-SPAN television. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with Distinction in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania and received an M.A. from the Annenberg School for Communications.

Andrew J. Grotto is a Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress, where he specializes in U.S. strategic policy and nonproliferation. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, The Los Angeles Times, the UK’s Guardian, The Baltimore Sun, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a variety of scholarly journals. Most recently, Grotto co-authored Restoring American Military Power: A Progressive QDR (Center for American Progress, 2006), a comprehensive assessment of U.S. military strategy. He received his J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley (Boalt Hall), his M.P.A. from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and his B.A. from the University of Kentucky.

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