Today’s rapid technological advances have great potential to improve human health, but they also create the opportunity for new kinds of threats, and for more and more actors to make use of biological weapons. These trends are not new, so the release of this national strategy is an important culmination of a long series of steps taken by HHS and the entire U.S. government to build our biodefense capabilities.
As Prepared for Delivery
Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us here today.
I want to complement what Ambassador [John] Bolton had to say by laying out a couple points: the historical context for this strategy and why HHS is taking the lead on it, and how it reflects lessons we’ve learned about the serious threats we face.
So first of all, why a biodefense strategy?
The simple answer is that biological threats, of a man-made, accidental, or naturally occurring nature, are real and growing.
There are several factors driving their growth: As the world grows more urbanized and interconnected, infectious threats can spread more rapidly and easily than ever before.
Think about one of the threats HHS is monitoring right now, the Ebola outbreak in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Such is the ease of mobility between countries now that, just in the DRC, more than 100,000 people are being screened at border crossings every day.
We also face accidental and man-made threats. Today’s rapid technological advances have great potential to improve human health, but they also create the opportunity for new kinds of threats, and for more and more actors to make use of biological weapons.
These trends are not new, so the release of this national strategy is an important culmination of a long series of steps taken by HHS and the entire U.S. government to build our biodefense capabilities.
As you’ll notice, at each stage, the growing complexity of these threats demanded the involvement of more and more of the top-flight biomedical and public health expertise we have at HHS.
Back in the 1990s, Secretary Donna Shalala declared HHS a national-security agency, detailing a Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officer to the National Security Council for the first time.
The recognition of the importance of HHS’s expertise to national defense grew during my first tenure at the department, in the 2000s.
In the days following September 11, 17 years ago, HHS was tasked with evaluating our preparedness for biological threats.
This quickly became a very tangible threat, as the anthrax attacks cropped up. I was personally involved in managing the response, and we saw the importance of coordinating across government agencies: It was the FBI that had the actual spore samples, since it was criminal evidence, but we needed CDC’s scientific expertise to discover that we were actually dealing with a new form of anthrax, with spores so small that they were seeping through envelopes that hadn’t even been opened by their recipients.
Throughout my time at HHS, we faced a number of other biological threats: SARS, monkeypox, pandemic flu, MERS and more. In response, we had to significantly expand the department’s preparedness and response capabilities, including the creation of a specific office for this issue, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
We transformed what had been a national stockpile of pharmaceuticals into a strategic national stockpile that contains countermeasures for a wide range of threats.
We oversaw the creation of the National Disaster Medical System, which has thousands of civilian health professionals on call to prepare for and respond to healthcare and public health needs caused by a disaster. Right now, hundreds of NDMS members are working to respond to [Hurricane] Florence, but they are equally important in the event of a pandemic or biological attack.
We also created BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which supports the private sector to develop medical countermeasures like vaccines, diagnostic tools and antibiotics that will help us respond to biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological threats.
BARDA in particular was a response to a need identified about lack of coordination: There was no single entity in government or elsewhere interested in bringing countermeasures from basic scientific research all the way to stockpiling and deployability—until we created BARDA. So that speaks to one particular need for the biodefense strategy, and one of its key elements: the need to coordinate across different government agencies and the private sector.
The threats HHS dealt with under the Obama administration provided another lesson about the need for a coherent, coordinated strategy.
The 2014 Ebola crisis demanded efforts from all across government: HHS took the lead on treatment and epidemiological work in West Africa and here in the U.S. But there were significant roles played by the State Department and USAID, as well as by DHS components like Customs and Border Patrol. It was widely recognized that, early on, the response was not nearly as well coordinated as it should have been.
So those are a couple other lessons incorporated into this biodefense strategy: For the first time, it vests accountability in one place, the Secretary of HHS as chairman of a coordinating committee, and it covers naturally occurring threats for the first time.
This is a cooperative effort, with expertise from many domains, but it’s a cardinal rule of leadership that you have to have accountability, which means one leader. That’s a leadership lesson well-understood by this President.
Many of the HHS activities I’ve just discussed will now fall under the biodefense strategy. By incorporating them into this broader framework with other agencies, we’ll have a much easier time identifying gaps in our capabilities and addressing them in the most efficient way possible.
Most fundamentally, this strategy recognizes the importance of biodefense as a fundamental and distinct aspect of national security.
Before 9/11, a future president understood this and recommended that we do a much better job of preparing for the possibility of a biological attack. “Our adversaries understand that if they are able to blindside us,” he wrote, “they will be much more likely to succeed in blackmailing us.”
That future president was Donald Trump, writing in the year 2000.
With this strategy and President Trump’s strong commitment to defending the health and well-being of the American people, it’s going to get that much harder for any threat or any of our adversaries to blindside us.
So thank you for joining us today to learn about these efforts.