To get serious about bioterrorism, we need a vaccine database

The United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen short and has cost the country significantly in terms of human lives, economic growth and social cohesion. What’s more, the health crisis has revealed weaknesses in American national security, of which public health has been shown to be a critical factor. It has shown the world a weakened and divided America.

We still don’t know where the virus came from, but we do know that bioterrorism is a potential threat that must be taken seriously, as is cybercrime. Those who wish to do us harm could easily exploit private health information. Essential in the management of any health crisis, whether instigated by bad actors or arising naturally, is the security and management of data. The U.S. vaccine program has been disorganized and haphazard. People get their first dose in one location, the second in another and can walk into a pharmacy and get the third booster in a different state. Aside from paper cards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no centralized record. The government simply has not been able to keep tabs on who has been vaccinated with what or where or when.

There are security implications as well. Last year we saw another country try to steal American research about the development of vaccines, treatment and testing for COVID-19. If unfriendly nations were to gain access to laboratory and personal data, they could easily change and manipulate it to thwart American public health efforts. 

To keep itself safe, the U.S. needs to significantly improve the management of the current and any future health crisis and its data security game. It could do that by investing in a technologically cutting-edge vaccine database that would be developed and coordinated by the federal government and deployed and managed by the states. Currently, American health data is haphazardly organized and stored in myriad, unconnected databases, or even worse, on paper. Creating a centralized system would enable the U.S. to protect its people and economy and minimize security threats, while also ensuring that valuable information relating to the current and future health crises are not exploited by hostile actors. 

National security is multi-faceted, but we can no longer look at the numerous elements involved — military, political, cyber, climate, health and others — as siloed. We must take a holistic view of homeland security if we have any hope of effectively combating external threats. And we must realize that public health is tantamount to critical infrastructure. Investing in and defending public health is a direct investment in homeland security. 

The creation of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in 2018 was a key step in promoting national security, and since then, President Joe Biden’s administration has rightfully pushed for infrastructure investment and promoted cybersecurity standards. 

Less logical was his proposal to designate $6.5 billion to establish an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H), a biomedical research agency that would speed the development of treatments for widespread diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. 

The proposal, which was taken out of the social spending bill earlier this month, was not the best use of taxpayer dollars. The National Institutes of Health already invests more than $30 billion in medical research each year. What we need now is to manage the current crisis, to prepare for those that will inevitably come in the future and to do so in a manner that bolsters homeland security by making sure our digital information is protected. The proposed database would do that, as well as better serve scientific discovery at the same time. It makes little sense to put billions into medical research when there is no centralized database in which to store the information. 

The new database would be managed on the state level, with anonymized information being fed up to the federal level, providing real data on a national scale. Access would be limited to authorized people in the states and only for specific purposes, but the infrastructure would be singular so that the data will be uniform and can be used in the aggregate. 

This initiative could be developed under the auspices of CISA or it could be overseen by a new national health body formed with the purpose of advising and helping states with their management of public health data.

This body would promote and coordinate pandemic research and tactical and strategic responses and would provide anonymized, uniform and universal data for policymakers, pharmaceutical companies, and scientific bodies. Most importantly, it would make sure such data was stored and protected effectively and would develop a federal standard for doing so. 

Bioterrorism and cyber sabotage is the future of warfare. The United States must protect its people, their health and their data from those who wish the country harm. National security is handled at the federal level and public health data should be, too. 

Sigal Atzmon is the founder and CEO of Medix Global, a shared value, data-driven health management company that serves millions of patients in 90 different countries. She was formerly the head of private banking at UMB, where she managed a portfolio of over $4.5 billion.

Tags Bioterrorism Computer security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Cyberwarfare Data security Joe Biden Security convergence Technology United States Department of Homeland Security

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