Portman at HSGAC Hearing: We Must Ensure DHS Biosecurity Programs Can Protect Americans from Harmful Biological Threats

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, delivered opening remarks at a hearing entitled “Addressing the Gaps in America’s Biosecurity Preparedness” and highlighted how the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) office must ensure that legacy biodetection capabilities are replaced with advanced technology, built on a strong foundation of research and testing, and can protect the American people from harmful biological threats while also being a worthwhile investment of taxpayer money. Portman discussed how the authorities of the CWMD 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. 

A transcript of the opening statement can be found below and a video can be found here. 

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate your comments this morning, and I thank the witnesses for being here. Interestingly, a lot of the experts who are before us today are those who have been sounding the alarm as to our current biosecurity. And so I look forward to hearing from you, and I thank you for being willing to stand up and speak out on this. I think the pandemic has taught us once again that we’ve got to examine the effectiveness of our biosecurity posture. It’s about all kinds of biosecurity threats. One is man-made, of course. Others are accidental or naturally occurring pathogens. And as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, it’s going to have a devastating impact on our country or even the entire globe, as we’ve experienced with COVID-19. 

“Over the past 20 years, we have seen attempts at biological terrorism, notably the anthrax attacks in 2001. Remember following that, subsequent to the attacks, there was a lot of activity, including setting up much of what we’re going to talk about today. Of course, the harmful pathogens, including H1N1, Ebola, and most recently, COVID. Despite these threats, our nation’s biosecurity efforts have been too fragmented, in my view, among several different agencies and departments, which makes it tough to have accountability, hampers coordination, and makes us less able to be prepared for a large scale biological hazard. Hope we’ll talk about that some today and more about what we can do to ensure we have the best bio-detection capability out there and make smart investments in research and development in this area. I am concerned about our capability in terms of the ability to detect various pathogens that could do us a lot of harm and are not currently detectable. 

“The Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office, was just talked about – CWMD. We’ll talk about that a lot today, very significant role in this mission of biosecurity. But the office is plagued with some challenges, some of which are perennial, some of which predate the formation of the office itself. And as I said, some of it is a lack of coordination. BioWatch is the primary biosecurity program at DHS operated by the CWMD office. For the last 20 years, in my view, BioWatch has consistently under-delivered on its intended purpose to detect biological agents that could possibly pose a hazard to the public. So in my view, the roles need to be clarified, but also detection expanded. And again, I look forward to the views of the experts today about whether that’s their opinion, and if so, what can we do about it? 

“We’ve invested as taxpayers over $1 billion into the BioWatch program, and the CWMD office now wants to upgrade that program, as Chairman Peters just said, with this BD21 program, Bio Detection of the 21st Century. I think it’s a good time for us to ensure that the BD21 program is based on a strong foundation and ensure that it’s the kind of investment that is going to be worthwhile for taxpayers. And most importantly, that it’s a system that can protect the American people from these harmful biological threats. 

“The authorities of this office, CWMD at the Department of Homeland Security, are set to expire late next year. This gives us an opportunity here in this Committee to reauthorize and with the reauthorization to make the necessary changes so it does have broader capability and is better organized. So it may require more funding, but I think mostly it requires better organization and better accountability and that’s what I hope we can talk about today. We’ll have an opportunity again with this reauthorization to take a careful look at this and improve the system. So I look forward to hearing the witnesses’ assessments of where we are now with regard to our preparedness and their recommendations for improving this national effort to safeguard the American people from these biological threats. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”