National biosurveillance strategy aims to detect manifold threats

Aug 2, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – The Obama Administration this week unveiled the nation's first national biosurveillance strategy, designed to detect a range of threats, including bioterror attacks, infectious disease outbreaks, agricultural threats, and foodborne illness outbreaks.

In a letter prefacing the 8-page plan, which the White House unveiled on Jul 31, President Barack Obama wrote that this step is part of his National Security Strategy.

The report also appears to address shortcomings in the nation's biosurveillance system that have been the subject of two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, along with one from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general. The plan leverages existing efforts and focuses on what it calls "core functions."

In February the Institute of Medicine issued a report from a Sep 2011 workshop that explored obstacles faced by the DHS's National Biosurveillance Information System. That report detailed a host of problems, ranging from a lack of built-in authority to lapses in trust between the system and other agencies.

In a related development, Nicole Lurie, MD, MPH, assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services in late June asked the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) to help guide federal efforts to improve the nation's situational awareness strategies, which is linked to proposed legislation to reauthorize the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.

Obama wrote that the goal of the strategy "is to provide the critical information and ongoing situational awareness that enables better decisionmaking at all levels."

The text of the strategy acknowledges that there have been dedicated efforts over the years to improve biosurveillance and that the tiered system—from federal departments to the private sector—can benefit from an approach that focuses attention on a few core functions and better integration efforts. "In these fiscally challenging times, we seek to leverage distributed capabilities and to add value to independent, individual efforts to protect the health and safety of the nation," the plan states.

It spells out four guiding principles: leveraging existing capabilities, taking an all-nation approach, adding value for participants without radically altering or burdening participants, and maintaining a global perspective.

To achieve the goal of a well-integrated biosurveillance system that can save lives and help decision makers, the strategy emphasizes four core functions: scan and discern the environment, identify and integrate key information, inform decision makers, and forecast impacts.

Helping achieve the core functions rests on four enabling capabilities that include:

  • Integrating capabilities, such as forming regional agreements to share information on human, animal, and plant health trends and considering social media as a way to boost situational awareness
  • Building capacity, by, for example, developing new point-of-care diagnostics for identifying multiple pathogens
  • Fostering innovation, such as developing innovative forecasting methods
  • Strengthening partnerships, which could involve raising awareness of others' interests and finding ways to optimize current and new partnerships

Obama said he has directed federal officials to complete a strategic implementation plan within the next 120 days to flesh out specific actions and responsibilities of groups involved with government biosurveillance efforts. "Guided by this strategy, I am confident that we can meet our shared responsibility and deepen the collaboration we need to keep our country safe and secure," he wrote.

See also:

Jul 31 National Strategy for Biosurveillance

Feb 14 CIDRAP News story "Workshop: National biosurveillance system has a long way to go"

Jun 26 CIDRAP News story "Biodefense board takes on situational awareness, SNS tasks"

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