B.Next, an IQT Lab, will explore a complex and increasingly urgent problem: how can we rapidly detect and quench epidemics of infectious disease — whether they arise from natural causes or acts of bioterror?

Since 2013, IQT has launched four strategic initiatives, known collectively as IQT Labs. These initiatives are intended to address complex, urgent national security problems as they intersect with disruptive, gamechanging evolutions in science and technology. IQT Labs will pursue collaborations among government customers, innovative private sector partners, and academia in an effort to understand, illustrate, and demonstrate emerging technologies and their potential roles in national security.

The persistent — and increasing — risk of infectious disease epidemics and the potential for catastrophic bioterror attacks are evident national security concerns. Meanwhile, extraordinary advances are being made in the life sciences and biotechnologies. The capabilities produced by the digital revolution — e.g., sensors, advanced analytics, and mobile communications — are converging with our ability to comprehend and manipulate the parts, circuits, and operating systems of living organisms and biological systems. B.Next will seek to exploit the expanding understanding of how epidemics arise and unfold, and the emerging array of powerful biotechnologies to construct a technology architecture for biodefense. This architecture of extant and emerging capabilities will serve to map how, given the appropriate will, imagination, and resources, we might significantly improve epidemic detection and response.


Both naturally occurring infectious disease outbreaks and deliberate biological weapons attacks present significant threats to US national security. Contagious disease knows no borders; fast-moving disease outbreaks can bring great suffering, and cause long-lasting social and economic damage, as well as political unrest and destabilization. Biological weapons, developed by several countries in the last century, including the US, could deliver sudden, catastrophic casualties on civilians, crops or agricultural animals. Advances in biology and biotechnologies offer opportunities for more effective epidemic response. The global rise of biotechnology has also created simpler ways of constructing powerful bioweapons and the needed materials and methods to do so serve many legitimate purposes and are widely available.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.

The United States faces significant and growing national security threats from increasingly frequent and disruptive natural epidemics of infectious disease and potentially from covert biological weapons attacks on civilian populations. Strategic adoption of existing and emerging biotechnologies, and use of digital communications and analytical tools could greatly improve epidemic detection and management. Specifically, the United States needs to:

  • Harness the growing power of biotechnology to rapidly design and test diagnostics and vaccines fast enough to combat an outbreak and to enable manufacture of such countermeasures at scale; and
  • Integrate already available digital technologies and analytical capabilities into public health practice.

Implemented and resourced appropriately, a national technology strategy for biodefense could significantly enhance the Nation’s ability to defend against potentially existential biological threats.

Infectious disease has been a topic of nearly constant media attention in the last two years due to the outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa. The outbreak, which has continued to smolder long into 2015 (and likely through 2016), has raised questions that are central to our broader concerns about infectious disease both overseas and in the United States (and illustrate further that the distinction between over there and here are largely illusory). Why do outbreaks of infectious disease occur? Can we predict them? How do they spread? How can we respond to outbreaks more effectively? What is the role of technology in this response? In this article, we consider how far we have come in understanding infectious disease, point out current issues, and identify technology trends that will drive the next generation of solutions.