Lessons for Australia in US biodefence strategy
17 Oct 2018|

In Stephen King’s apocalyptic horror novel The stand, the accidental release of a biological weapon, a super-flu nicknamed Captain Trips, caused a global pandemic that wiped out 99.4% of the world’s population. King masterfully paints a picture of incomplete and ineffective government responses to the highly virulent airborne pandemic. King wrote the novel to scare us, but his description of the outbreak in the opening chapters should also serve as a warning for governments. The global pandemic threat is very real, a point that the US government’s recently released 2018 national biodefense strategy clearly illustrates.

The US government has been actively engaged in containing disease outbreaks for decades. The recent outbreaks of the Ebola and Zika viruses—to name just two—have shown that pandemics are a threat to global stability and security. Through a combination of good timing and good fortune, government responses to epidemics have so far been effective. It seems certain, however, that this run of luck won’t continue.

Obama administration officials started working on the biodefence strategy in January 2017, drawing on the lessons learned from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Through its work, the administration recognised that enhanced interagency coordination and the capacity to rapidly develop federal responses to crises was central to success. So it’s not a surprise that this year’s US biodefence strategy under President Donald Trump was developed to support the creation of ‘a single effort to orchestrate the full range of activity that is carried out across the United States government to protect the American people from biological threats’.

The strategy lays out the assumptions that underpin the US government’s thinking on biodefence. Two key themes emerge: a constantly evolving threat environment and the need for cooperation across and within sectors.

To meet the biodefence challenge, the strategy sets five goals focused on risk awareness, preparation, risk mitigation, response and recovery. And so, for the most part, the strategy creates a ‘strawman’ framework to support government cooperation on US biodefence. One could be forgiven for viewing it less as a strategy and more as a laundry list of activities.

The strategy clearly gives a security dimension to the pandemic threat. National Security Advisor John Bolton serves as the policy lead. Interestingly, the biodefense steering committee is made up mostly of national security types but is chaired by the health and human services secretary. This structure unfortunately results in a rather one-dimensional focus on the direct impacts of pandemics—human casualties—with relatively little consideration given to dealing with their economic and social impacts.

With such a coordination framework, it’s hardly surprising that the biodefence strategy has a very narrow interpretation of biosecurity risk. It focuses almost exclusively on pandemics and their role in biological warfare.

As Paul Barnes and I discussed in our recent report Weapons of mass economic disruption, the scope of the threat to biosecurity in general terms is broadening. In response to this, governments need to broaden their understanding of biosecurity and biodefence to include non-lethal applications of the threat.

To the casual observer, the strategy could be seen as a positive policy outcome for the Trump administration. Unfortunately, in scenes all too familiar in the Trump White House, the reality is complex and conflicted. While the strategy itself is a good sign, other developments point to a decline in US pandemic and biodefence preparedness.

In February, the Trump administration reportedly decided not to extend a US$600 million funding boost to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was provided in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. This cut has resulted in the CDC reducing its epidemic prevention programs in 39 of 49 countries. In May, the White House’s most senior pandemic expert, Timothy Ziemer, left the administration and his global health security team was disbanded.

While the strategy itself represents a step forward, a lack of consistency and funding is going to inhibit its delivery. And there seems to be more than enough evidence to suggest that the US is less prepared to deal with a global pandemic today than it was six months ago.

Australia has plenty to learn from the US biodefence strategy, especially in terms of promoting the significance of biosecurity threats to an often complacent public. For Australia, any effort to develop such a national strategy ought to start with a much broader interpretation of the threat than that used by the US.