Is the U.S. Prepared for a Bioterrorism Threat?

CTU Homeland Security Degree - BioterrorismIn my last blog, I wrote about how bioterrorism was recognized as one of the top five threats to the United States in the immediate future. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) describes bioterror threat as “deliberate release of viruses, bacteria or other agents used to cause illness or death.” The CDC’s site provides a good primer not just on bioterrorism, but on a range of biological agents and related concerns, and what we can do to prepare. It’s clear that biosecurity presents a unique challenge in facing both terrorist or human-generated bio-threats, and natural or unintentional public health emergencies.

Understanding the Threat

Additionally, the federal government has taken an active role in attempting to understand the nature of the broad bio-threat challenge. They’re seeking to identify and place appropriate public and private sector resources to meet the threats. In 2002, after the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks, Congress passed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act. Subsequent homeland and national security strategies continued to refine the government’s approach to bioterrorism and public health threats. President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy addresses the need to counter biological threats, ostensibly as the nation’s number two security concern, after nuclear weapons:

The effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent within a population center would endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and have unprecedented economic, societal and political consequences. We must continue to work at home with first responders and health officials to reduce the risk associated with unintentional or deliberate outbreaks of infectious disease and to strengthen our resilience across the spectrum of high-consequence biological threats. We will work with domestic and international partners to protect against biological threats by promoting global health security and reinforcing norms of safe and responsible conduct; obtaining timely and accurate insight on current and emerging risks; taking reasonable steps to reduce the potential for exploitation; expanding our capability to prevent, attribute and apprehend those who carry out attacks; communicating effectively with all stakeholders; and helping to transform the international dialogue on biological threats.

Finding Intelligence

The challenge, not unlike with any threat to the U.S. and its citizens, is to collect timely, accurate and actionable intelligence against bio-threats. More specifically, the issue is what to collect and how to collect it within a timeframe that can prevent or mitigate the threat. But what sets bio-threats apart, perhaps, is that they’re not all created equal. Some of the potentially greatest threats to human life may be unintentional, coming from unsuspecting carriers of particularly nasty viruses and bacteria. While we can attempt to identify enemies that might want to use biological means to attack the U.S., how does the nation gather the intelligence against threats whose only human connection is – maybe – how the bug is carried?

The most recent government effort to address this is the National Strategy for Biosurveillance and the new National Biosurveillance Integration Center. The overarching intent is to form a biosurveillance national ‘enterprise.’ The response to the federal government effort has been mixed. In HLSWatch, Alan Wolfe cites the administration’s first major effort in biosecurity as just “another strategy to implement.” And,

“(u)nfortunately, this strategy lacks clear ways and means that would allow for a coordinated national biosurveillance effort. Rather than leveraging the ‘whole of government’ approach and implementing an oversight process that has broad authorities, this strategy avoids directing roles and responsibilities that are necessary to avoid duplication of effort and power struggles over who is supposed to be in charge of this overall program.”

I agree with Mr. Wolfe. The current effort is imperfect. But the effort to develop a strategy and shape the larger biosecurity enterprise is important.

Image credit: Flickr/massdistraction