Outbreaks, Attacks and Accidents: Combatting Biological Threats
The following is a testimony of Tara O’Toole, MD, MPH; Executive Vice President, In-Q-Tel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on February 12, 2016.
Chairman Murphy, Ranking Member DeGette, and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to address the vital issue of the national security threats posed by biological attacks and natural epidemic disease. I am a physician and public health professional. From 2009-13, I served in the Department of Homeland Security as Under Secretary of Science and Technology, and as Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health in the Department of Energy from 1993-7. In the decade between government positions, I was a Professor of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. In each of these positions I helped found and directed university centers devoted to understanding the threat of bioterrorism and of epidemics of infectious disease, and how such events might be prevented or mitigated.
Currently, I am executive vice president at In-Q-Tel, a non-profit organization created by Congress in 1999 that provides the US Intelligence Community with access to innovative small companies in the private sector. My current project focuses on identifying existing and emerging technologies emerging from the life sciences that could significantly improve the nation’s ability to rapidly detect and quench destabilizing epidemics, whether natural or engineered.
I wish to congratulate the members and staff of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense for their important – and hopefully highly influential – report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense. I especially endorse and share the Panel’s sense of urgency about repairing the country’s vulnerability to highly consequential bioevents. We have lately been reminded of the potentially devastating effects of natural epidemics and terrible losses and disruption they impose. As the Blue Ribbon Study Panel wrote,
The biological threat has not abated. At some point, we will be attacked with a biological weapon and will certainly be subjected to deadly naturally occurring infectious diseases and accidental exposures, for which our response will be insufficient. There are two reasons for this: 1) lack of appreciation for the extent, severity and reality of the biological threat; and 2) lack of political will. These conditions have reinforced each other.
Today, I will address three points:
- The coming decades will include more frequent and more disruptive epidemics due to naturally occurring infectious disease as a result of population and commercial pressures.
- The deliberate use of biological weapons, whether by nation states, terrorist groups or lone wolf actors, represents a strategic threat to US national security. The potential destructive power of bioweapons is equivalent to that of nuclear weapons, and advances in science and technology have removed any technical barriers to building and disseminating highly lethal bioattacks over large areas. Yet, as the Blue Ribbon Panel emphasizes, the U.S. has not moved with determination to reduce our vulnerability to such attacks.
- The “revolution” in biological science and biotechnologies now underway could – with sufficient foresight, imagination and resources – be used to rapidly detect and quench epidemics – whether from natural causes or bioterror. I will suggest some critical technologies which might help realize the Study Panel’s assertions that “dramatic improvements [in biodefense] are within reach”.