The US government has revised its plans for responding to biological threats. On 18 September, the White House released the first US biodefence strategy that spans multiple government agencies. In another first, it includes not only deliberate bioterror threats, but also naturally occurring outbreaks and infectious diseases that escape the lab accidentally. The strategy, unveiled by Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, will also evaluate issues such as advances in gene editing that could make it easier for terrorists to engineer dangerous pathogens.
The White House has created a steering committee to coordinate operations in the event of a biological attack or a major disease outbreak, Azar said. His department will lead the panel, whose members will include representatives of the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.
The committee’s first tasks will include an immediate review of agencies’ biodefence strategies and capabilities in order to identify any gaps.
Azar also said that President Donald Trump’s administration will continue the Global Health Security Agenda — an international initiative started by former president Barack Obama in 2014 to create an early-warning system for outbreaks by improving disease surveillance and response in developing countries. Trump proposed cutting about two-thirds of the programme’s funding in his 2019 budget request.
“The best way of stopping a disease outbreak in the US is stopping it before it ever comes to our borders,” Azar said.
“In general, everything in it seems very reasonable and reflects a lot of the thinking that’s gone on in biodefence,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious-diseases specialist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. In particular, he notes, the strategy encompasses biological threats to plants and animals, which often go overlooked but could have major impacts on agriculture.
The Trump administration’s plan and steering committee largely follows recommendations laid out in 2015 by a committee of former government officials known as the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. “We’re happy to see” the new strategy, says Asha George, a health researcher who leads the panel. “It’s been a while.”
The next challenge will be persuading Congress to maintain funding for biodefence programmes to ensure that the United States will be ready if a threat emerges, Adalja says. “People don’t think of biodefence the way they think of other national-security issues,” he adds.