Government focus and investment is needed to fortify bio defense

Managing Director – Biotechnology, writes about the importance of government in bio defense


Two recent reports from the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense could not be clearer about the need for federal action to counter the potential threat from a trio of biological sources: terrorist attacks, accidents, and naturally occurring diseases.

The report Saving Sisyphus: Advanced Biodetection for the 21st Century puts it bluntly: “Federal inaction on national biodetection systems jeopardizes the nation” and outlines in detail the failings of current systems. Meanwhile, the other report from the Commission, Insidious Scourge: Critical Infrastructure at biological risk, shows how “biological events could destroy, incapacitate, and disrupt critical infrastructure and prevent our society from both functioning properly and protecting itself,” and argues that each critical infrastructure needs to be prepared to predict, prevent, detect, and respond to biological events efficiently and effectively.

In parallel to publishing the reports, the commission continues to put pressure on the US Congress to mandate federal defense of critical infrastructure against biological threats, for the establishment of a critical infrastructure biodefence program at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and for the federal government “to exert leadership and work with its private sector and international partners to manage and reduce biological risk to critical infrastructure now.”

The Covid-19 pandemic provided a wake-up call and while the USA’s critical infrastructure is still functioning in the face of the disease, according to the commission “it is not standing firm.” It therefore calls for “targeted action by Congress, the Administration, and the private sector today” to alleviate the strain caused by the next biological event, to prevent a cascade of failures in critical infrastructure, and thereby “reduce the pain and suffering disease inflicts on the country.”

So, what would such targeted action involve and how can private industry play its role?

First, it is crucial to understand what has been done so far in federal efforts to create a bio detection system. Put simply, BioWatch – created by the George W. Bush administration in 2001 in response to the anthrax attacks of that year and running at an estimated cost of $80 million a year, according to Saving Sisyphus – has seriously underperformed.

For example, the report makes clear that this program suffers from high numbers of false positives, which leads to expensive responses based on inaccurate results. It requires daily visits by personnel to every detector to collect and bring filters back to a laboratory for testing.  It also has limited coverage, having permanently been established only in a small number of cities.

Based on the learnings from BioWatch, below are three recommendations aimed to improve our bio defence program by fostering multi-agency policy, stimulating technology development, and positioning the defence program to safeguard against new, evolving threats into the future.

Multi-agency policy

One of the biggest obstacles that we face is the “ignorance is bliss” mentality.  Government agencies to private companies struggle with the pervasiveness of biological threats, whether accidental, naturally occurring or a result of a terrorist attack.  Not knowing what to do when a biological threat is detected, however, somehow seems to overshadow the lack of responsibility to protect people and limit exposure.

We need multi-agency support to deploy a layered approach to protect society from such threats which includes a clear commitment to introducing policy. Policy that protects, directs, and supports organizations with effective measures and tools to safeguard against biological threats and risks.

For example, in response to Covid-19, the US government opted to pump money into the Food and Drug Administration and the testing of individuals, but there was minimal focus on environmental testing.  If the right strategies were in place, and a layered approach to mitigating COVID-19 were deployed, would we have gotten students back to school sooner, stabilized our economy better and led the world into recovery faster? The answer is yes, when coupled with clear accountability made through strategic, holistic policy making.

Technology development

Private industry is making a great contribution to designing and producing products that enhance biological security. But the only player that can make significant influential investments in this area is the federal government. What is worrying is that rather than providing extra money for bio detection programs following the ongoing pandemic, funding is being cut. This is a short-sighted approach that risks undermining our preparedness to counter future biological threats through the development and deployment of next-generation detection equipment.

As indicated by the Bipartisan Commission, collaboration between government, the public sector, and private industry will be needed to develop a coherent and effect defense strategy against biological threats.

It is important to highlight that it was Smiths Detection that approached the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to verify the detection performance of our SARS-CoV-2 biosensor.

While significant advancements have been made in environmental bio detection technology by the private industry players, initiative needs to come increasingly from government who can most effectively foster collaboration and steer technology development.

Safeguard against new, evolving threats

Perhaps the most critical need in advancing our Bio defence program is clear mission requirements for 21st century bio detection. We know that speed, accuracy, adaptability to future threats, user-friendly technology, and the ability to provide information for the attribution of events is needed.  Yet, a well-defined concept of operations that guides decision-making following an actual biological event, is still missing.

To effectively achieve clarity in mission requirements it is important to consider both naturally occurring threats such as viral pandemics and nefarious biological releases from acts of terrorism and determine the best approach to meeting each challenge.

It is also important to be clear about the differences between what is required for indoor monitoring compared with outdoor monitoring, and the requirements for monitoring critical infrastructure compared with those for monitoring the general population.

As government and industry approach this challenge, they will need to define each individual mission clearly, highlight where there are any gaps, and support the development of concepts of operations (ConOps).

The challenges outlined within are considerable. But industry is prepared and, in partnership with government, we can overcome the obstacles to create a stand-out bio defense strategy that predicts, prevents, detects, and responds to the natural and human-made biological threats, helping to make our world a safer place for decades to come.