May 7, 2024 - Health

Exclusive: Report urges sustained U.S. biodefense buildup

Illustration of a combination lock with a virus icon on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new report calls on all levels of government to strengthen U.S. biodefense measures and urges policymakers to codify parts of a national strategy to address an array of biological threats.

Why it matters: Threats in the form of infectious disease outbreaks, lab accidents and biology-based weapons are expected to increase in the coming years, according to the report's authors and other experts.

  • But biodefense investments get caught in a cycle of "panic and neglect" — an intense focus for a short period, after which policymakers, funders and the public move on, the report notes.
  • "Every future administration must ensure that the National Biodefense Strategy keeps pace with the rapidly evolving and increasing biological threat," the authors of the 2024 National Blueprint for Biodefense write.

The report is being released Tuesday by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, which was set up in 2014 with former Senator Joe Lieberman as founding co-chair. Lieberman contributed to the report before his death earlier this year.

"We're not putting enough emphasis on getting ahead of these biological threats," says Asha George, the commission's executive director.

  • "The United States has become exceedingly good at responding to all kinds of things. But I think we're at our limit now as a nation, as a world, and that means being really good at response is no longer good enough."

Zoom in: The commission calls for Congress to designate the White House's national security adviser as leader of national biodefense efforts and to establish a deputy adviser to quarterback daily duties and responsibilities.

  • We are "really calling upon the national security adviser to take charge of this. There are too many national security implications," George says.
  • Biodefense responsibilities currently span the government, including 15 federal departments and nine independent agencies.

It also calls for unifying the federal government's biodefense budget, arguing it would "enhance congressional oversight and allow the White House to better determine whether current programs are in keeping with the president's priorities."

  • "Many biodefense activities would greatly benefit from multiyear funding," it says, adding that national defense efforts often involve multiyear procurements.

Reality check: With a full pandemic preparedness package still in congressional limbo, immediate prospects for more sweeping biodefense reforms face long odds.

The commission's 36 recommendations and 185 action items also include:

  • Establishing a congressional working group on biodefense at the beginning of each Congress.
  • A quadrennial biodefense review that would result in an updated National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan that's submitted to Congress by the White House.
  • Amending the Public Health Service Act to "produce a research and development plan for reducing pathogen transmission in built environments."
  • Replacing BioWatch, a two-decade-old system created in the wake of 9/11 to detect pathogens in the air, whose potential remains unrealized. The commission calls on Congress to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to replace ineffectual BioWatch technology, noting, "We cannot afford to be caught flat-footed by an airborne pathogen in huge population centers."

The big picture: Biosecurity and biodefense programs have been impacted by the whiplash of different administrations and their priorities.

  • The Office for Pandemic Preparedness and Response was set up in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy last year under a Congressional mandate.
  • But former President Trump told Time magazine last month he'd likely disband OPPR if he wins a second term.
  • During his first administration, Trump ended an Obama administration directorate on biodefense and global biosecurity overseen by a senior director on the National Security Council. President Biden reinstated it.

The intrigue: The commission also highlights emerging astrobiological threats at "the intersection of space exploration and infectious disease."

  • The commission acknowledges "it may seem far-fetched" but some microorganisms can survive the extreme conditions of space. It says there is a risk of probes or humans bringing back microbes that could "pose a threat to Earth's human, animal, plant, or ecosystem health or the Moon."
  • It recommends authorizing NASA's Office of Planetary Protection to prevent contamination of celestial bodies by organisms and materials from Earth and prevent contamination of Earth and the Moon by extraterrestrial life and materials.
  • It also calls for NASA to establish a planetary biodefense board.
  • "It doesn't mean that we have to put the entire national budget towards addressing these things, but I think we can be better organized about it," George says. "This is the time to get on top of it."
Go deeper