Highlights and Opportunities in the US Strategy for Countering Biological Threats

The National Security Council (NSC) just released the US National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats (PDF), a framework for US Government planning efforts in support of the overall National Biodefense Strategy that dates back to 2003-2004.

NSC Word Cloud

A Cloud: US National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats

I don’t need to tell you that biological threats, natural or man-made, are an international issue, so, the strategy provides a broad approach. While placing significant emphasis on acts of bio-terrorism, it intends to reduce biological threats by (my emphasis):

(1) improving global access to the life sciences to combat infectious disease regardless of its cause; (2) establishing and reinforcing norms against the misuse of the life sciences; and (3) instituting a suite of coordinated activities that collectively will help influence, identify, inhibit, and/or interdict those who seek to misuse the life sciences.

Going on, it identifies roles and responsibilities and provides seven main objectives (PROTECT):

  • Promote global health security
  • Reinforce norms of safe and responsible conduct
  • Obtain timely and accurate insight on current and emerging risks
  • Take reasonable steps to reduce the potential for exploitation
  • Expand our capability to prevent, attribute, and apprehend
  • Communicate electively with all stakeholders
  • Transform the international dialogue on biological threats

So, how do we balance our resources toward a bio-terror threat versus that of naturally occurring disease? Furthermore, are we looking at the issue in a holistic sense? Lastly, how will open government and/or technology play a role in the future of bio-threat reduction?

Promoting One Health

In my opinion, central to emerging biological threats is the concept of ‘One Health’ or, the local and global influences impacting human health, including the interdependence of people, animals, plants, and the environment, as well as the associated food and water availability, safety, and security.

Source: A “One Health” Approach to Address Emerging Zoonoses: The HALI Project in Tanzania

The local and global influences impacting human health, including the interdependence of people, animals, plants, and the environment, and the associated food and water availability, safety, and security. Source: A “One Health” Approach to Address Emerging Zoonoses: The HALI Project in Tanzania


While not explicitly acknowledging the ‘One Health’ concept, the strategy does an okay job addressing each component. Specifically, the strategy seeks to develop:

A robust understanding of the nature, prevalence, and severity of infectious diseases both at home and abroad is critical for effective decisions for prevention, protection, preparedness, and response. In addition, a clear understanding of scientific capabilities and medical, veterinary, and public as well as agricultural health capacity abroad is essential to inform decisions on policies, programs, and investments that can best manage current and emerging risks.

and

Supporting efforts in partner countries and regions to develop mechanisms and capabilities for reporting to the WHO, OIE, FAO, and other partners validated data on human, animal, and plant outbreaks of infectious disease;

…and improve international capacity against infectious diseases by:

Supporting efforts of partner countries and regions to advance the capability of medical, public health, agricultural, and veterinary systems to respond to and recover from disease outbreaks of any origin;

Open Government Governance

Reducing the risks presented by biological threats requires the use of all aspects of national power and coordination and effective partnerships among all sectors of government. Furthermore, expanding access and building knowledge as to the global disease burden and technological capabilities will, among other things, depend on transparency in nationally and international institutions both public and private. This falls in line with the Obama administration’s open government initiative, by

  • Supporting efforts in partner countries and regions to develop mechanisms and capabilities for reporting to the WHO, OIE, FAO, and other partners validated data on human, animal, and plant outbreaks of infectious disease;
  • Engaging Federal, nongovernmental, and international partners to advance awareness and understanding of global outbreaks of infectious disease;
  • Promoting the development and use of mechanisms for reporting, preserving, and—as appropriate to improve transparency in government—sharing data on Federal programs and investments in international scientific, agricultural, medical, and public health collaborations.

The New (Old) Biotechnology…from biosurveillance to Twitter

As the strategy points out, advances in the life sciences are progressing globally at an unprecedented rate. We are witnessing the globalization of life sciences information, and as the clouds continue to form, an avalanche of data from academic institutions, research centers, and private laboratories in basements and garages, will drive innovation and open access to the insights and materials needed to advance individual initiatives. This revolution spans biotechnology, information sharing systems and even your more commontech, like Web 2.0 applications. Thus, as you might imagine, the strategy addresses numerous technology-centric objectives.

For instance, under the first objective, the NSC seeks to continue building global capacity for disease surveillance, detection, diagnosis, and reporting (a subject close to my heart) and to advance access to and effective use of technologies to mitigate the impact from outbreaks of infectious disease, regardless of their cause.

The Strategy is hopeful to stay ahead of the life sciences revolution by:

  • Ensuring appropriate Federal investments in “technology watch” initiatives that provide cutting edge insight and analysis from those currently engaged in the science;
  • Encouraging the broad distribution of technology watch findings to those engaged in risk management activities across the Federal Government and appropriate nongovernmental partners;

There is emphasis on working closely with partner countries and international organizations like WHO, OIE, and FAO to share disease reporting requirement compliance and to ensure efforts:

  • Is integrated and interoperable with their existing logistical infrastructure and sensitive to their public and agricultural health priorities;
  • Is sustainable within the often limited resources of the country/region, either unilaterally or with other partners;
  • Improves coordination between human, plant, and veterinary disease reporting systems, especially in relation to zoonotic diseases; and
  • Is transparent and enables the sharing of information with international human, plant, and animal health agencies and the United States.

So, what about Web 2.0?

There are a couple of examples where the NSC places emphasis on social networks. How technology supports a local Kenyan village may differ from Silicon Valley, but at least the Strategy begins to acknowledge our global interconnectedness and how information will be shared:

  • Much of the information needed to provide situational awareness is derived from social networks within distinct and disparate communities. We will emphasize the need for each of these groups to enrich and expand their networks and ability to share data in a manner that appropriately protects individuals’ privacy and other relevant sensitivities.
  • We must seek to encourage the development of social networks that derive from positive and productive relationships among our law enforcement and security communities and members of those communities at unique risk of exploitation.
  • Evaluating the role for novel technologies in facilitating intradepartmental, interdepartmental, and open sharing of information in a manner that protects those elements deemed critically sensitive.
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