Policy group calls US biodefense progress mediocre

Sep 10, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – A bipartisan commission of former US government officials , in issuing a report card today on the federal government's progress toward preventing terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), gave the nation a C- for its efforts to reduce the threat of bioterrorism.

The Partnership for a Secure America (PSA) released its report at a press conference in Washington, DC. The 122-page report, posted on the PSA's Web site, gives the nation an overall grade of C for the measures it has taken to reduce the terrorism threat since the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks.

The nonprofit group's 22-member advisory board includes several members of the 9/11 Commission and advisors to and members of past presidential administrations. The PSA is led by Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, and Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from Washington. The group said the report card is a part of its larger effort to assess the US government's progress toward implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

A mixed picture
The panel's report on biological terrorism was written by Barry Kellman, professor of international law and director of the International Weapons Control Center at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. The PSA panel generally found that federal officials have made progress toward thwarting and responding to bioterror threats, as well as participating in international efforts to track infectious diseases. However, it said the biggest obstacle has been poor coordination and cooperation between federal departments.

"And US disengagement from the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has undercut the confidence necessary for effective multilateral cooperation," the report says.

The group assessed and graded six areas of activity to come up with the overall grade for the nation's biodefense efforts:

  • Denial of access to bioterror agents: B. Funding for global threat reduction is strong for most programs, but they still account for less than 2% of the total biodefense budget. Multinational cooperation, particularly with the former Soviet Union, has been weakened by US disengagement from the BWC. Though biosecurity efforts have been strengthened with Asia and the Middle East, the measures haven't addressed large parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Detection of plans for biological attacks: C-. US labs that work with bioterror agents are poorly monitored, and global efforts to track work on and movement of bioterror agents are lacking.
  • Interdiction by law enforcement: B-. Federal policies to strengthen laws and promote cooperation among law enforcement groups are helpful, but need a more comprehensive strategy and better resources. The US government is part of a security initiative, along with 80 other nations, to intercept WMD materials, but the focus is mainly on nuclear materials.
  • Confidence building to distinguish dual-use research: D+. Accusations and mistrust over the 6-year weakening of the BWC have undermined international cooperation and security. Also, the US government has strongly opposed the creation of a global organization to oversee and coordinate bioterroism prevention policies. However, the State Department is aware of the concerns, and efforts are under way to promote new detection technology and assess how scientific advances related to bioterror threats could influence treaty requirements.
  • Developing resilience by stockpiling and developing new countermeasures: C-. Project BioShield has supported the acquisition and stockpiling of medical countermeasures, but concerns have been raised about decision-making and coordination within the program. Regarding the development of new countermeasures, there has been little coordination with the European Union and other developed countries. Mechanisms for the oversight of dual-use research have been developed in the United States, but internationally are more limited.
  • Mitigation through public health preparedness and response: B. Between 2004 and 2006 the US government spent $84 million on key programs to improve international surveillance and detection capacity. However, plans to improve global cooperation are moving slowly, and planning for a biological attack has lacked a focus on multidimensional threats, such as a repeated attack that would drain response resources.

More multilateralism needed
The panel made several recommendations related to each of the areas that were assessed. They urged the government to work with multinational partners to develop biosecurity standards, mandatory registries of pathogens and labs, and oversight of international trade in pathogens, materials, and equipment.

Also, the group recommended that federal officials work toward strengthening national and international "biocriminal" legislation and law enforcement capacity and training related to biodefense.

The panel said the United States should work toward better transparency and trust by participating in and complying with the BWC and should support the appointment of a global authority to coordinate international cooperation on reduction of biological threats.

Domestically, the PSA recommends that one official, perhaps someone with the National Security Council or State Department, be appointed to coordinate all federal policy relating to biological threats.

"Such officials should undertake a prompt review of major policies in this arena to assess priorities, identify significant gaps, and enable synergies," the group wrote.

See also:

PSA overall report card on WMD terror prevention

PSA report on bioterrorism preparedness
http://www.psaonline.org/downloads/BIOLOGICAL%20report%208-28-08.pdf

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