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Parker Shares Thoughts on Bio-Preparedness with U.S. House Committee

Posted November 22, 2017

Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), travelled to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7 to testify before members of the U.S. House of Representatives, offering his insights on the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T).

GParkerCVMTodayHorizontalDuring the hearing for the House Homeland Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, Parker provided his perspectives on the impacts of the proposed DHS S&T budget cuts and need for strong leadership to drive action against the real and present biological threat faced by the country.

“Today, I see a Science and Technology Directorate that is more concerned with staying in their ‘lane’ and serving only the DHS components as more important than playing a broader homeland security enterprise leadership coordinating role,” Parker testified. “I also see a broader interagency homeland security enterprise that does not place value on the DHS threat and risk assessments in driving their homeland security requirements. From what I can discern, DHS S&T seems to have also abandoned their practice of conducting interagency biodefense net assessments, too.”

Parker also called on the need to elevate biodefense as a leadership issue for the White House.

“It is clear now that strong leadership for the interagency biodefense enterprise is needed now more than ever before,” he said. “Competing and ‘siloed’ interagency biodefense interests are now commonplace, leading to a relative lack of interagency coordination and inefficient use of available resources for the growing biological threats. These issues only highlight the critical importance for a new biodefense strategy and renewed strong White House leadership for biodefense.”

He argued that uncertainties resulting from President Donald Trump’s budget proposal and a lack of leadership, without a DHS S&T undersecretary, has led to anxiety and performance issues in several arenas, from a dis-incentivizing of university scientists who could offer innovative homeland security solutions to an apprehension among DHS S&T staff and other performing organizations.

“The president’s 2018 budget request eliminates DHS Science and Technology funding for animal agriculture bioterrorism defense. This is a concern not only of mine, but several animal health stakeholders that include state veterinarians, as well as animal health and production industries that have homeland security responsibilities,” Parker said. “It appears that ongoing research and development programs supported by DHS S&T for agriculture bioterrorism defense will be terminated without a clear transition plan and commensurate increase in USDA funding for animal health defense, creating a significant research and development homeland security gap.

“Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreaks in the United States tell us we are not prepared, and remain highly vulnerable to naturally occurring transboundary infectious diseases, as well as bioterror attacks,” he said. “Clearly this is not the time cut animal health defense.”

He went on to describe how bio-terrorism preparedness could also be threatened by the president’s budget request, which eliminates funding for several national laboratories, forcing their closure.

“I cannot overstate the importance of having dedicated, core laboratory capabilities and scientists that are focused on microbial forensics to support attribution. It is not a part-time job, or other duties as assigned function,” Parker said. “Microbial forensics is still, and will always be an evolving science–perhaps not well understood outside of the relatively few professionals in their field. The science of microbial forensics will only get more complex with the continued rapid advancement of new biotechnology tools that are readily available, and as new examples of dual use research of concern emerge from our scientific enterprise that could be misused to do harm.”

Finally, while reiterating that the DHS S&T has made great strides, Parker attested that keeping our homeland safe and secure is a difficult task, and those efforts would be hampered by budget limitations and other pressures.

“Although we are much better prepared today, recent reports by the Biodefense Blue Ribbon Panel tell us that we have a long way to go,” Parker said. “We cannot afford to remain complacent about biological threats, nor can we afford to continue business as usual. Innovation, creative imagination and leadership are more important than ever.

“The directorate should also take a longer-term view and imbed creative imagination, innovation, university scientist, and sound leadership practices in their programs,” he said. “Business as usual will not get the job done.”

Parker’s full recommendations to the committee include that:

  • The committee ensure the Trump Administration develops a comprehensive biodefense strategy that is tied to a unified and transparent budget, with clearly identified lead and supporting roles, and supports a strong White House leadership role to elevate the importance of biodefense to homeland security and drive interagency coordination and optimal use of available resources.
  • The committee ensure the DHS S&T reestablishes leadership role in the new national strategy to help drive broader homeland security biodefense and homeland security requirements through a transparent and trusted bio-risk threat assessment and net assessment process the White House can use to enforce interagency outcomes, performance, and accountability.
  • The committee ensure the DHS S&T does not eliminate their animal agriculture bioterrorism defense research and development programs (R&D) unless there is a plan in place to transition R&D requirements and programs to USDA. The committee should work with DHS and USDA to consider transferring NBAF to USDA if DHS does not maintain animal defense R&D programs.
  • The committee work with the DHS S&T to ensure that the National Biodefense and Analysis and Countermeasures Laboratory is not closed and to ensure that a plan for transition of ownership and operations of the laboratory to either the FBI, DOD, or the intelligence community is completed and implemented.
  • The DHS S&T and the broader DHS department should implement recommendations of the Biodefense Blue Ribbon Report.
  • The DHS S&T should ensure that there is an effective mechanism to keep university scientists engaged on homeland security solutions, whether that is sustainment of the Centers of Excellence model or an alternate strategy.
  • The DHS S&T should continue implementing a more innovative, DARPA-type culture for the homeland security science and technology enterprise.

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