For the past few months, a Blue Ribbon Panel on Biodefense, co-chaired by former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, has been holding meetings, receiving input from industry and policy experts on the challenges America faces from the bio-related threats. This will allow the Panel to make recommendations to policy makers, influencers and presidential campaigns about what should be done. The public testimony portion of their assignment recently concluded, and now the Panel will begin its review and recommendation work.
Former DHS S&T Deputy Undersecretary Dan Gerstein, who is an expert on the Biological Warfare Convention, having written several books on the subject, has attended the meetings of the Blue Ribbon Panel and thought a lot about the issues they will face. He recently penned an op-ed for US News that suggests the Panel would be well-advised to look at the work of previous analysis groups of this nature as a guide to their future recommendations.
Gerstein, who is now at Rand Corporation, makes some good points, the most compelling of which to me was this paragraph:
“Concerning preparedness, the stilted response to the recent Ebola outbreak demonstrates that the United States is not prepared for a significant biological attack. Numerous systemic response and recovery shortfalls have been exposed that must be remediated. Biosurveillance capabilities are inadequate. Reliable point-of-care diagnostics are not available. The “one bug, one drug” approach to medical countermeasures is highly inefficient and not viable for the range of pathogens that could be employed or the response timeliness required. Infection control in U.S. hospitals is not adequate for highly infectious pathogens. Hospitals have extremely limited surge capacity and limited knowledge for treating infected individuals. Communicating with potentially affected populations requires more thought. This list reflects just a small subset of the noted shortfalls that should be addressed in the panel’s findings.”
I would add to the list the challenge of creating a governmental regulatory and funding system that can adapt to the speed at which technology allows medical countermeasures to be developed, tested, evaluated and fielded. In that respect, the testimony of Dr. Anne DeGroot, CEO of EpiVax in Providence, Rhode Island, might be of particular interest. Her message about the need to align government processes with technology advancements, especially disruptive technology, was one that needs deeper investigation. I’ve known Dr. DeGroot for quite a while, and the ability to design and start production of targeted vaccines within 48 hours of receipt of the DNA sequence is something that the FDA and NIH don’t seem to be able to get into their bureaucratic mindset, and that must change.
Gerstein’s commentary is worth pondering – by the Blue Ribbon Panel and by all of the rest of us.