Chairman, Committee Discuss Biodefense Report Recommendations

WASHINGTON — Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to assess the state of America’s biodefense, a term used to define the nation’s readiness for a manmade or intentional biological event, such as the release of a weaponized pathogen. 

“Discussions about homeland security often involve the threats we can see: violent extremism, dirty bombs, explosives, nuclear weapons, etc.,” Johnson said in his written opening statement Wednesday. “Today we will be examining our nation’s defenses and preparedness for a threat that is not visible to the naked eye but that can threaten entire cities: biological agents such as the bacteria and viruses that cause anthrax, plague, tularemia and Ebola.” 

Testifying were former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former Gov. Tom Ridge. Both co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Panel on Biodefense, which has been examining this aspect of the nation’s security infrastructure since December 2014 and has held numerous panel discussions with former and current biodefense and public health experts on the subject. The panel’s report, titled, “A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts,” was released Wednesday morning and discussed publicly for the first time before the committee. 

The hearing focus was twofold: understanding the findings of the blue ribbon panel’s report and identifying opportunities for continuous improvement in our nation’s biodefense infrastructure. 

“The bottom line of this report is we’re better defended than we were in 2001 after the anthrax attacks, but really, the state of our biodefense is inadequate,” Lieberman said. “We’re unprepared for the very real biological threats we face, both from terrorists and from naturally emerging contagious diseases.” 

Lieberman and Ridge pointed out that the report has about 100 action items — detailed steps for responsibility and accountability — in order to maximize results. One such item recommends institutionalizing biodefense in the office of the vice president of the United States and empowering the vice president with complete jurisdiction and authority. Currently, there is no ultimate accountability in the system. “We strongly believe that the only person in the national government, the federal government, that has the capacity and frankly, the political and financial muscle, to move and build and integrate an architecture to deal with the bio threat, is the vice president of the United States,” Ridge said. 

The report highlights that there are 25 pieces of legislation, executive orders or treaties that deal with biodefense, 50 political appointees in the federal government who have some responsibility over the issue and four pages worth of congressional committees and subcommittees that have disparate jurisdiction over bits and pieces. A strategy, a unified budget and streamlined oversight by the vice president is needed, Ridge said. 

Johnson agreed that a unified budget was a strong recommendation. “Certainly we’ve seen study after study of duplicated programs in the federal government,” he said. “From my standpoint, if anything, it might save you money because you’ll eliminate a lot of that duplicated effort so you’ve got more money to actually effectively utilize to fight the threats.” 

Johnson also asked Lieberman and Ridge if they’d spoken to the vice president about their recommendation of his oversight, but neither of them had at the time of the hearing.