Trump must prevent the next biological attack before it strikes

Biological threats have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. This summer, while nuclear tensions are center stage, we can’t afford to divert attention from biological threats. Pathogens know no borders, don’t have passports, can come from a bioterrorist or Mother Nature and can ignite already volatile situations. And the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas is yet another reminder of the importance of health security before, during and after a crisis.

Being prepared to respond to immediate threats is, of course, paramount to save lives. At the same time, as the former White House National Security Council staffers responsible for countering biological threats, we saw firsthand the need to maintain long-term focus — even during a crisis — on bolstering our nation’s biodefense capability. We know that biological threats must remain at the top of the national security agenda, and leaders must recognize that stopping outbreaks at the source requires strong global and domestic capacity to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to naturally occurring outbreaks and biological attacks.

{mosads}A test of this focus came in April 2013, when two biothreats developed that proved vital for shaping biodefense and global health security policy over the next four years. First, the deadly toxin ricin was found in letters mailed to President Obama, a U.S. senator and a Mississippi judge. Second, a worrisome new strain of H7N9 avian influenza that could infect humans was discovered in China. These events occurred during the same week as the devastating Boston Marathon bombing, and all the events were happening as Abu Bakr Baghdadi announced the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.


As all administrations must, we had to manage these as discrete crises that spanned the homeland and national security nexus. We convened our counterparts across the federal government to respond to the issues at hand and, simultaneously, to identify and fill urgent gaps in our biodefense architecture for the future. It’s this ability to sprint in the middle of a marathon that helps define a successful National Security Council staff.

Those frantic weeks in 2013 led to launch of the Global Health Security Agenda, an international partnership to build capacity to prepare for biological threats, and the development of a step-by-step playbook for managing biological crises. The events also highlighted the importance of clear procedures to attribute attacks, rapidly share between law enforcement and public health experts, and create, test and distribute medical countermeasures.

As Congress and the Trump administration mull a new biodefense strategy, we urge them to use this time — the time in between biological crises — to get ahead of the curve before the next major biological event inevitably comes our way. Here’s how.

Watch out for emerging threats in unstable regions

With tensions running high with Kim Jong Un, now would be an incredibly bad time for a major disease outbreak on the Korean Peninsula. The White House would be wise to prioritize mutual biodefense and health security partnerships with Seoul and Tokyo.

Fund and renew the Global Health Security Agenda

Stopping outbreaks at the source and before they spread is the best way to save American lives. The new biodefense strategy offers an opportunity to codify and finance the Global Health Security Agenda and its specific metrics. Sustainable budgets at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other critical agencies would make a major and immediate impact. Don’t let the nation’s deployed disease detectives be deactivated due to lack of funding in 2018. Emergency supplemental requests are no panacea. It took Congress seven months to fund the Zika response, and the next pandemic could be much swifter.

Replenish the budget to maintain global biosecurity

The U.S. Department of Defense provides nearly all of the world’s funding aimed at preventing terrorists from accessing biological threat agents, yet its budget for global biosecurity — through the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program — has been slashed in recent years. We know from experience that the Pentagon will pick up the tab for responding to a bioterrorist attack or uncontrolled natural outbreak. Replenishing the program’s budget and highlighting it in the new biodefense strategy will ensure that the Pentagon is also at the forefront of stopping biological threats at the source before they become costly epidemics.

Keep laboratory assets for attributing biological attacks

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Bioforensics Analysis Center, our nation’s primary domestic resource to rapidly identify the agents in a biological attack so that responders can act as quickly as possible, is on the chopping block. Back in 2013, this unique capability was at the forefront of illuminating the source of those ricin letters and protecting Americans. Eliminating the center just doesn’t make any sense.

Use biosurveillance to stop outbreaks before they start

The 2012 National Strategy for Biosurveillance was a great beginning, but the U.S. government still does not have a truly synchronized national, much less global, capability to recognize outbreaks that could spread around the world. And we are light years away from pandemic prediction. To get ahead of pandemics, we need an epidemic surveillance and forecasting capability to rival our National Weather Service.

Biological threats are ever present and unpredictable. Our nation’s biodefense depends on making the investments we need to stop outbreaks at the source, rapidly identify emerging threats, and respond quickly and effectively to whatever comes our way.

Laura S.H. Holgate served as special assistant to the president on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2016. She was the U.S. representative to Vienna office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2016 to 2017. She is now a senior nonresident fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Elizabeth E. Cameron, Ph.D., served as senior director for global health security and biodefense and director for countering biological threats at the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017. She was a senior adviser for chemical and biological weapons at the U.S. Department of Defense from 2012 to 2013. She is now senior director for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Biological warfare chemical weapons Congress Defense Donald Trump Government Islamic State National security Science Terrorism United States

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