A potential new role in biodefense for Mike Pence may be his most important yet
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Imagine the nightmare:

“Nine weeks ago, terrorists unleashed insidious biological attacks on our Nation’s Capitol during our Independence Day celebrations. The infectious agent they used ultimately led to the deaths of 6,053 Americans. Many of our own colleagues and staff fell ill and died. Thousands more were killed in coordinated attacks in allied nations in the days that followed.

“The attack here in Washington, D.C. used aerosol delivery devices we could see, but did not know contained dangerous organisms. We discovered later that other attacks had already begun elsewhere in the Nation, using methods we have yet to identify that spread the disease among livestock in rural communities.

“Delays in recognition — because most veterinarians and physicians had never seen Nipah virus — meant animals and people were sick for more than a week before we realized what had happened. “And now we are being told that the virus, which in nature does not spread easily among people, was genetically modified to increase its ability to spread from animal to animal, animal to person, and person to person.

“Biological agents have now been used again to attack the United States, defying predictions and hopes that this would never happen. Obviously, those predictions were wrong.”

These are the first paragraphs of a hypothetical scenario the members of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, on which I serve, released as part of our report in October of 2015.

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As I re-read it, I cannot help but appreciate the shocking transformative impact a tragedy such as this would have on the nation and on the world. Petty politics, philosophical differences and legislative dysfunction would, once again, fade as our country’s leaders began to grapple with the enormous tragedy such an event would entail.

 

Even though the scenario above is only hypothetical, there is little doubt that something like it will occur … sometime, somewhere.  And the sad reality is that we are extraordinarily unprepared.

Our report notes that experts in both the public and private sectors believe that the biological threat is real and growing. And unlike other threats, it can be borne of malicious intent or an act of nature.

Moore’s Law and the technology transformation have created newfound opportunities to create biological weapons easier and faster than ever before.

Technological advancements in science have empowered terrorists with far greater potential than at any time in history. And their access to the components of bio-weapons is now almost a given.

The Study Panel made 33 specific recommendations to address our enormous shortcomings.

They include the need to prioritize and align investments in medical countermeasures, unify biodefense budgeting, dramatically improve bio-surveillance capabilities, establish a biodefense hospital system, implement a military-civilian collaboration mechanism to defend against biological attacks, and develop a 21st century environmental detection system.

However, among all 33 recommendations, our first and second had to do with national leadership.

None of what we recommend can occur without recognizing and acting upon its critical importance. As the report forcefully argues, leadership is absolutely essential for coordination and accountability, for elevating collaboration and for driving innovation.

Our number one recommendation is to provide the vice president with both the executive and budget authority to provide this critical leadership in all three contexts.

Our second proposal would establish a Biodefense Coordination Council with not only federal participation, but with state, local, tribal and territorial, and private sector involvement — to ensure the most comprehensive organizational mechanism to ensure an effective and integrated national effort.

Previous administrations have attempted to accomplish this in a number of ways, including by placing a federal department or agency official in charge, assigning responsibility to White House staff, naming a czar and placing an elected official in charge.

Unfortunately, none of these options have been entirely successful, as our suboptimal and fragmented responses to the anthrax attacks of 2001 and recent outbreaks like Ebola and Zika have revealed.

There is a rule in Washington: Proximity to the Oval Office is power. That rule has become the fixed reality over many administrations through many decades. For this level of leadership to succeed, the Study Panel concluded that there is only one person with the stature and the necessary access to the president, his Cabinet and Congress. That is the vice president.

As the report contends, institutionalizing the responsibility in the office of the vice president will ensure that biodefense will be addressed by every administration at the highest levels and with adequate access to the president.

Vice President-elect Pence should be empowered with both the jurisdiction and the authority to coordinate all relevant federal, state, local, tribal and territorial efforts to prevent and prepare for either a natural pandemic or terrorist attack.

The Constitution only empowers the vice president to preside over the Senate and to cast a vote in case of a tie. But historically, and with increasing frequency over the past 25 years, and with each successive administration the role and stature of the office has grown. Vice President Biden’s cancer moonshot is only the latest example.

As we look to the challenges our country faces in the months and years ahead, given the tragic inevitability of either a natural or malicious biological catastrophe, there can be no better role for our next vice president than this.

Tom Daschle is a former United States Senate Majority Leader and a panel member of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.


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