Expert Witnesses Agree with Portman that Stronger Accountability is Needed at Federal Level to Bolster National Biosecurity

WASHINGTON, DC – Today at a hearing to examine the gaps in America’s biosecurity preparedness, expert witnesses agreed with U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that there is currently too much fragmentation and not enough accountability within the federal government to effectively establish a strong biosecurity system to protect the United States from bio-attacks. Portman highlighted how the authorities of the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) office are set to expire next year which allows for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to reauthorize the office and make the necessary changes to improve the system through better organization and accountability.


In addition, the witnesses also agreed with Portman that an advanced biosurveillance system could have worked to detect COVID-19 faster, allowing for a faster response in mitigating the spread of the disease. Every witness attested that they do not believe the United States currently has the adequate surveillance capability for bio-threats and foreign adversaries, like China and Russia, are investing billions in advanced bio-protection.


A transcript of the questioning can be found below and videos can be found here and here.   

Portman: “Well, first, I appreciate all the expertise, as I said at the outset. All three of you have been sounding the alarm, and today you’re able to give us more specifics as to how you would deal with the shortfalls that you see. I was curious in listening to your responses about how to not just make the structure more accountable and simpler, in effect. I think that’s what, Dr. George, you are getting at, but also improve the technology. And one initial question I would have maybe, Dr. George, you could take this. You said that some of our adversaries have active bioweapon programs. What do our adversaries and for that matter, our allies, do with regard to protecting their citizens from bio-attacks, and what can we learn from them? Has the Commission been able to analyze comparatively what other countries do?” 

Dr. Asha George, Executive Director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense: “Mr. Ranking Member, I think when you’re talking about the four countries that I mentioned, it’s very difficult for the intelligence community or anybody else to figure out what they’re doing to protect themselves or not. But what I can tell you is that Russia and China are investing billions into their bio-economy, and part of doing that is investment in protective technologies, vaccines, personal protective equipment and anything else that will bring the economic aspect of biology in the 21st century up to the next level. They are investing at a rate much greater than what we are investing here in the United States. It’s going to start putting us at an economic disadvantage, but it’s also going to put us at a protective disadvantage.” 

Portman: “Does that relate to BioWatch into the monitors as well?” 

Dr. George: “I don’t know, Senator.” 

Portman: “How about our European allies or Japan or South Korea or other countries where we would have access to exactly what they’re doing and I would assume be happy to share that information. But have you learned anything from them is how we could do a better job on detection?” 

Dr. George: “Yes, Senator, I would say especially in Europe, our European allies and other countries with whom we are friends are working on bio-detection. And I think their approaches are different from ours. I think that they have viewed this as a technological challenge. That needs to be iterated. We started with something in 2003 that the national labs produced, and 18 years, 19 years later, we’re still kind of hanging around using that same technology. The Europeans have not done that. They have gone through their cycles over and over and improved. Now nobody, including our Department of Defense and NASA, says that they’ve got the absolute solution that’s going to work 100 percent of the time, but they’re working on technology that’s getting us closer and closer to that. And I believe we can get that information from our allies, our European allies, and possibly Japan, I don’t know, if we asked.” 

Portman: “Yeah, you’re indicating that they’re ahead of us in terms of the technology, at least as to BioWatch, and that responsibility. Let me ask you just a basic question that I think a lot of people who are watching today might be interested in. Why didn’t we detect COVID-19? Why did it take us so long? I think it was not until January that we actually felt like we had discovered this COVID virus, when in fact, it had been around for a few months. Maybe, Director Currie, you could start on that?” 

Christopher Currie, Director of Homeland Security and Justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office: “Thank you, sir. Well, I mean, there’s a lot of opinions as to why we may not have detected it as quickly as we want. But the point you bring up is about surveillance, which is surveillance is basically scanning the world for potential biological threats so we can get them as quick as possible and address them. And this has been a huge challenge across the agencies in the biodefense enterprise. And this is something we’ve pointed out, that multiple agencies have all tried to pursue their own surveillance systems. DHS has one, HHS has been trying to do one, DoD has one, USDA has one for zoonotic diseases. They’ve all been pursued separately. Some of them have not been successful, and they certainly haven’t been integrated together. So I think part of the problem is the fragmentation and lack of integration. But one quick point I’ll make is during COVID, we’ve created some new innovative surveillance systems to monitor COVID and really get down into the state, local level, in the private sector, in the hospitals and the pharmacies and things like that. And I think we need to look at what we created there and not just get rid of it when COVID’s over, we need to use that to develop new surveillance systems.” 

Portman: Yeah, I know there’s been some interesting research done for airports as an example. Hasn’t been implemented as far as I know, but there is some research that could be quite helpful. Dr. Parker, any thoughts on that?” 

Dr. Gerald Parker, JR., Associate Dean for Global One Health College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University:Sure. Yes, thank you.” 

Portman: Let me just give you the precise dates here.” 

Dr. Parker: “Okay.” 

Portman: “The first COVID-19 case that the CDC confirmed was on January 21, 2020. And recent studies by public health officials suggest that it was undetected in the country a couple of months previous to that.” 

Dr. Parker: “Well, I think it really comes down to the need to re-envision biosurveillance and take advantages of the lessons and the things that we did build, that was just recommended, with our COVID-19 and the data analytics. I mean, it’s really phenomenal, now today for COVID, we can unpack and go down to the county level, the zip code level, and understand what’s happening as far as cases, hospitalizations and deaths, we didn’t have that capability before COVID. And we certainly stumbled out of the gate with our laboratory diagnostics that’s been talked about ad nauseam. And we need to address some of those things in the future, and we need to address it that we’re not just also focused on the public health. We have to focus on animal health. We have to focus on plant health. We have to take a one health solution as we think about our strategy and we have a national biosurveillance strategy, maybe it was 2012, 2013, it was some years ago, but I don’t believe we ever had a very good implementation plan of that strategy. So COVID-19 has told us we need to re-envision what biosurveillance means and how we can do it and take advantage of our lessons observed and turn them into lessons learned. But it’s got to be a one-health approach to do this out of my time. It is inexcusable the dates you mentioned that now, retrospectively, we believe it may have been in the United States before January and so we got to fix those things in the future so that our laboratories can pick it up and we’re looking for the disease X’s in the future.” 

Portman: It could have made a huge difference had we had the surveillance capability. Just quickly and I’ll hopefully be able to get to a second-round here. But yes or no, do you think we have adequate surveillance capability for bio-attacks and just a simple yes or no, Dr. George?” 

Dr. George: “No.” 

Dr. Parker: “No.”

 Portman: “Director?” 

Mr. Currie: “No.” 


Portman: “I have a number of questions looking for some quick answers just to help us to be able to figure out a better way to move forward in terms of the fragmentation that’s currently out there that we’ve heard about today, in terms of responding to bio threats and also trying to figure out better what’s working and what’s not working in the current system. But let me start with regard to a question about academia and maybe, Dr. Parker, you’re the best person to answer this because that’s where you reside now. Does DHS and do other entities, including CDC, that have biosecurity programs effectively leverage US research universities? Is there a good relationship with academia?” 

Dr. Parker: “Well, I think early in the, and I’ll make this short, early in the life of DHS, there was a creation of the University Centers of Excellence, and that’s been, I think, a very good and effective program to engage academia. Now the threats have evolved and the priorities have evolved over time.  What I’ve observed is biosecurity has been kind of downregulated in importance for those University Centers of Excellence. In early days, there were two or three centers that were focused on agricultural biosecurity and food security. Those have been emeritus status today.” 

Portman: “So it sounds like that could be revamped as it was perhaps after the anthrax attacks and other incidents.” 

Dr. Parker: “Correct.” 

Portman: “Because I think that’s one thing that’s missing in the current system is having a more formalized way to access some of our great advantages of our country, which is our research universities. We talked earlier about how some countries are ahead of us now in terms of surveillance, but we certainly have a huge advantage in terms of using U.S. research capability. So that’s one thing we want to work on with you. Director Currie, you may be the best person to answer this. There’s another group we haven’t talked about today, at least in any detail, and that’s the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, NBIC. Is it needed? Is it helpful? Does it add something beyond what CDC already does? NBIC is part of CWMD, so it’s part of DHS, and then you also have CDC. It seems to be a similar responsibility. Talk to us about NBIC.” 

Mr. Currie: “Yes, sir. Well, we’ve reported on it several times over the last decade, and what we’ve found pretty consistently is they’ve struggled to meet their mandate of providing broad biosurveillance. Part of that is that they don’t really have the access to the data they need. Both the data at other federal agencies are down at the local level to produce the kind of real-time information you would need to make decisions. The other thing we heard from its partners, particularly at the federal level and state level, is that since they use a lot of publicly available information and they do a pretty good job of synthesizing that information, it’s not really new or that novel to the people that need to make decisions in this arena. So it’s not that what they produce has no value, but another concern I have is that I mentioned this before, there are four different surveillance efforts across the four big departments Homeland Security, Defense, USDA, and HHS, all separate, all stove pipe don’t work together. Some have been successful for their individual purposes, some have not. And I think that just shows you the lack of coordination across this whole enterprise. It’s very difficult to make the decision of which one should go and which should stay because there’s no one at a top-level that can make that decision.” 

Portman: “Yeah. Well, I think this has been brought up by all three of you in one way or another, that there is too much fragmentation, not enough accountability, and to have four different departments or agencies effectively trying to achieve the same mission and perhaps not sharing information from what you said between themselves, that’s an opportunity for us in terms of reorganization. The problem that I see, and I don’t want to get into anything that’s classified here, but is that we have surveillance capability in certain areas, certain urban centers, and this information is publicly available. I’m not going to name the number of cities even though it’s publicly available, because I just like to stay away from that sort of stuff. But it’s not comprehensive, and everybody knows that. Second, when you look at the biological threats we face today, it’s not comprehensive. And that goes to the technology issue. And that’s one reason I asked earlier about what other countries are doing and whether we can learn and whether academia is fully engaged, because it seems to me we have an opportunity here to have better technology. Could you address that in the appropriate way, Dr. George? And we don’t want to give our adversaries information that they shouldn’t have, but we also got to figure out how to fix the system so it’s more effective.” 

Dr. George: “Well, Senator, I think you’re absolutely right. What we want is a comprehensive system and that system or a comprehensive coverage of the entire country. What that would require is drawing information and data from a variety of different sources. So it’s okay that we don’t have BioWatch in every single jurisdiction throughout the country, but we have it in the numbers that we do have it, and that information should be coming into a place and combined with the information we’re getting from NBIC, the information we’re getting from the CDC and so forth. That was the original vision for the National Biosurveillance Integration Center. As Chris said earlier, the Department doesn’t have the access it needs to that information. But I think the other side of that coin, as far as this body is concerned, is that Congress did not mandate that all the other departments and agencies provide that information in the first place. So this is going along the way it is.” 

Portman: “So there’s obviously two great opportunities here. One would be to require that all the information is consolidated in one place. NBIC probably is the place to do it and second is, and I think this was discussed earlier, Dr. Parker, in terms of the academic contribution here, is that we have the capability to collect and assess data that we have never had before. We didn’t have frankly after anthrax and other biological threats that led us to try to come up with a national system so we have the capability to do this in which we’ve never had before and massive amounts of data being analyzed quickly and being able to produce something that’s meaningful that can then be disseminated to the appropriate agency’s departments. Is that accurate?” 

Dr. George: “Senator, I think we have the capability as a nation. We do not have that data analysis capability at the Department of Homeland Security and certainly not in the National Biosurveillance Integration Center. So you would have to decide to make that kind of investment in that part of DHS or somewhere else in the government if you choose but we can get there. It’s just going to require some more money and upgrading that capability.” 

Portman: Okay great. Thank you.”