House bill calls for White House biodefense advisor

May 10, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – A bill headed for the floor of the US House calls for appointing a special White House advisor to lead and coordinate biodefense activities, including developing a national biodefense plan and a biosurveillance strategy.

Among other things, the bill (HR 2356) calls for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to assess the risks of dual-use research and other threats associated with synthetic biology. It comes in the wake of the controversy over publication of studies describing lab-modified H5N1 avian influenza viruses with transmissibility in mammals.

After various amendments, the bill was approved on a voice vote yesterday by the House Homeland Security Committee. It is sponsored by Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., along with 10 bipartisan cosponsors. The legislation primarily relates to DHS activities.

Laura Segal, spokeswoman for the nonprofit group Trust for America's Health, said the bill grew out of the Graham-Talent report on weapons of mass destruction (officially known as the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD] and Terrorism). The 2008 report predicted that terrorists would probably launch a WMD attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013. Segal said similar bills were introduced in Congress about 2 years ago.

Pascrell introduced the bill last year under the name "WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011."

The 95-page bill requires the president to assign a member of the National Security Council to serve as the president's special assistant for biodefense, according to an online text of the version approved by the committee. The person's duties would include

  • Advising the president on coordination of biodefense policy
  • Identifying gaps and duplication in biodefense activities
  • Leading the development of a national biodefense plan and a national biosurveillance strategy,
  • Developing a national research and development strategy for microbial forensics
  • Overseeing a "comprehensive cross-cutting biodefense budget analysis" to help prioritize resources

The bill calls for completing the biodefense plan within 18 months and publishing the biosurveillance strategy within 1 year, with an implementation plan to follow a year later.

Among other provisions, the bill calls for establishing a bioforensics analysis center to support other executive agencies responsible for dealing with biological attacks, and a permanent laboratory biosecurity committee to make recommendations about guarding biological agents and toxins.

An amendment approved by the House panel yesterday requires the DHS secretary to conduct a risk assessment every 2 years on dual-use research and other aspects of synthetic biology. The amendment also calls on DHS to provide all federal agencies that fund life-sciences research with guidance on compliance with US laws, arms-control agreements, and existing departmental policies.

In addition, the amendment says DHS may conduct research on how to reduce risks associated with synthetic biology, such as studies on how providers of synthetic nucleic acids might distinguish legitimate customers from possible terrorists or criminals.

Meanwhile, final congressional action is still pending on another major piece of legislation related to biodefense and emergency prepardness: reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006. Reauthorization bills were passed by the House on Dec 6, 2011, and by the Senate on Mar 7.

Differences between the two versions must be ironed out before final passage. Segal said that process seems to have been pushed onto the back burner for now by a current focus on bills dealing with Food and Drug Administration user fees for makers of prescription drugs and medical devices.

See also:

Text of bill version approved by the House committee

House committee's markup page, with links to bill amendments

Summary of the committee's May 9 actions

Newspaper op-ed article about the bill, written by Pascrell and cosponsor Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

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