The Nation’s Biodefense

Posted on March 29, 2018
Biological agents like anthrax have the potential to kill or injure masses of people or have a catastrophic impact on the economy. These agents could emerge naturally or be intentional acts of war or terrorism. So, how does the federal government work to understand and prepare for biological threats? Today’s WatchBlog explores this question. Understanding biological threats  Tackling biological threats is no small task—they come from a variety of sources and there is a lot of uncertainty about when and how they might appear. For example, emerging infectious diseases—like the Ebola virus—are not only spreading faster, they also appear to be emerging more quickly than ever. Advances in genetic engineering and “do-it-yourself” biology only increase the complexity and uncertainty. The same methods, products, or technologies used to combat diseases can be used to manipulate genetic material for use as a bioweapon. This cat was born from an embryo whose genes were modified with jellyfish genes—hence the green glow—to track whether other genetic alterations were successfully transferred, something that seemed impossible just a few decades ago. Five federal agencies—the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency—play unique and key roles in helping to advance knowledge about biological threats. They use intelligence gathering, scientific research, and analysis to help identify and prioritize the most dangerous biological threats and guide biodefense investments. Coming together for a national strategy At least 17 federal departments and agencies play important roles in biodefense—activities to prevent, protect against, and mitigate biological threats that could have catastrophic consequences to the nation. With so many agencies involved, we and others have noted opportunities to better leverage shared resources and inform budgetary tradeoffs. Furthermore, legislation enacted in December 2016 requires key biodefense agencies to create a national biodefense strategy that has the potential to help address these issues. To learn more—including how the Department of Homeland Security works to close knowledge gaps on biological agents—check out our full report.