How and why DoD has updated its readiness plan for biodefense

If the COVID virus showed anything, it's the potency of the biology threats. The Defense Department recently completed its 2023 biodefense posture review.

If the COVID virus showed anything, it’s the potency of the biology threats. The Defense Department recently completed its 2023 biodefense posture review. It deals with many potential threats from the bio domain. For more on the story behind the review, Federal Drive with Tom Temin   spoke with the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, Brandi Vann.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Now, this is labeled 2023. Is this something that the Pentagon does annually among the hundreds of reports it does every year, or is this something a one off type of thing or an occasional type of thing?

Brandi Vann Yeah, actually, this was the first ever bio defense posture review, and it was directed by Secretary Austin back in November of 2021. He had a memo that he signed out called the Biodefense Vision Memo. And in that memo, he said that we must prepare to operate in biological threat environments and support the national biodefense enterprise, both home and abroad. And within that memo, he also dictated the execution of this Biodefense Posture review, which was laid out as a foundation from the National Defense Strategy and the recently published 2022 National Biodefense Strategy, as well as, of course, lessons that we learned from the COVID 19 pandemic response. So other reviews of this kind happen on a regular basis. It’s yet to be seen whether or not this will be a continuing effort.

Tom Temin And does this principally cover how troops themselves will be protected from bio threats in combat or something, God forbid something happens in Taiwan or whatever? Or is this also how the Defense Department contributes to the, let’s say, homeland security, for lack of a better word, defense, should some release or event happen here?

Brandi Vann Yeah. So first and foremost, it looks at our posture and our readiness and resiliency of our force to operate in a biologically contested environment, no matter the origin. So whether that is a deliberate biological weapons attack, a naturally occurring or pandemic disease, or even a laboratory accident. The posture review focuses across that spectrum. Now, it’s something to remember that the military has been in conflict operations during every declared pandemic in the last two centuries. While they are not biological weapons, they have all challenged operations and our capabilities, whether that’s restriction of force flow or design, logistics or supply. So the BPR really looked at and prioritizes the aim to kind of strengthen and sustain our deterrence operations against these types of threats, while at the same time bolstering the department’s resiliency and ability to address current and future threats. So that is everything from understanding what that landscape looks like to clarifying roles and mission spaces across the department, looking at our capability development, and then aligning our authorities and our policies, our research and development and our acquisition programs and all of our investments and even our force structure in order to meet the DoD’s base requirements there. We also took a strong look at training and exercises and doctrine and try to align all of those. We did this under four main lines of effort. The first one was really looking at kind of understanding that threat space, whether or not it was enhanced early warning or understanding what biological incidents we might be faced with. We then also looked at our preparedness activities and how we can better prepare to be a resilient total force. Then we looked at how we speed our mitigation activities to try to minimize the impact of biological incidents to DoD missions. And then finally, how do we improve our strategic coordination and collaboration across the enterprise?

Tom Temin And when you look at biodefense, it’s really not just one thing because some things you might be able to protect with the latest in gas masks, other things might take hypodermic injections that you would need in large quantities. And the responses in how you react to a given threat varies as widely as the threats. So we’re really talking about a sort of multidimensional problem here, it sounds like.

Brandi Vann Yes, it is. It’s very multi-dimensional. It’s very complex. It is expanding and growing as we speak. And we have really identified that today the DoD and the nation is at a pivotal moment in biological defense in understanding the fact that we face an unprecedented number of complex challenges. Again, be they naturally occurring potential for laboratory accidents or naturally occurring or even deliberate attacks. So when we look at this space, we, of course, leveraged the National Biodefense Strategy and the National Defense strategy to understand what that space looks like. And so the national defense strategy really speaks to the growing risk of chemical and biological threats in the context of a strategic competition with near-peer competitors, and ultimately the potential use of biological weapons or their proliferation by state or non-state actors? And that presents challenges in its own. But we also are seeing increase of laboratory accidents with the rise of the number of labs across the world that are conducting high risk life science research. And that research has the potential to have pandemic pathogens without effective oversight. So that’s concerning, of course. We also look at the potential of existing and emerging biotechnologies and how they can be incorporated into potential biological weapons programs for the purposes that are inconsistent with the Biological Weapons Convention. And then at the end, we also are looking at naturally occurring disease. So climate change is really impacting the permafrost layers. And we’re seeing the potential of freeing of novel or long dormant pathogens. And then, of course, as we’ve seen through the COVID 19 pandemic, the infectious disease outbreaks could spread rapidly across continents and oceans and affect our ability to be postured.

Tom Temin Yeah, I think malaria has been spotted in a couple of places in the United States. We thought we had that one licked decades ago. We’re speaking with Dr. Brandi Vann. She’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs. And did you discover some major gaps in the readiness that you might not have been aware of without undertaking this review?

Brandi Vann We uncovered a number of elements that we realized that we needed to put emphasized effort against. And that is both from a research and development, but really from an organizational and alignment in coordination of efforts across the biodefense enterprise here within the Department of Defense, but also how we work broadly outside of just the DoD for the broader national biodefense enterprise as well.

Tom Temin Right. So that was my next question. Did this review involve some of the domestic or civilian agencies that are concerned with this? [Department of Healh and Human Services (HHS)], Homeland Security and a couple of other departments have a piece of biodefense anyway outside of the defense domain?

Brandi Vann Yeah. So the the Biodefense Posture Review itself was a collaborative effort internal to the Department of Defense primarily. So we had components from across the DoD and our entities, whether they were defense agencies or OSD components, joint staff, so on and so forth. And we looked at the distinct roles and authorities that they had in playing within the biodefense realm. But while we were focused primarily on our internal review, we actually focused a lot of consultation with external stakeholders, including industry partners and academia in global biodefense and health security experts. So we also complemented that with some collaboration with our interagency. So even though the BPR itself was internally focused, the department plays a huge role in the National Biodefense Strategy Implementation plan. Under the guidance of the National Security Council, we work with our interagency partners, as you mentioned, to really anchor our strategy in a holistic federal response.

Tom Temin And earlier, you mentioned that every time there’s been some kind of pandemic, the U.S. military has been at work somewhere in the world. We learned early on in the pandemic, I think it was as early as 2020, late 2020, maybe early 2021, I can’t remember. But we had some battleships that were crippled by the amount of COVID infection that had occurred aboard. And it was kind of a wakeup call that these things are not just potentials. Did that event in the Navy inform some of the thinking here?

Brandi Vann Absolutely. So the Teddy Roosevelt incident, and the fact that they had to stay for a long time in Guam and restrict their movement absolutely played a factor in this. Though, I will say, while COVID did highlight a number of opportunities for us to kind of change or improve the way that we were responding to threats, this is not just about the pandemics and about COVID. This is truly looking again across that spectrum of potential threat agents.

Tom Temin All right. And so what happens next? The review is done and now there are some operational changes that probably have to happen or maybe some acquisitions that could result.

Brandi Vann Yeah. So there are a number of capability development efforts that are underway now, because of the Biodefense Posture Review. In addition to that, we are increasing our support and our reviews of how we are effectively doing training and exercising within the department. But one of the major reform efforts that. We came up with in the Biodefense Review was the establishment of a new governance structure for biodefense. The reason behind that was the BPR’s analysis found that the biodefense enterprise was great, but it could really improve the unity of effort to strengthen our integration mechanisms for both situational awareness, as well as prioritization of readiness and preparedness activities to try to maximize the efforts within the department.

Tom Temin And that sounds like that could be in some ways a whole of government effort also.

Brandi Vann Yeah. So again, the council itself was tasked to us, through the Deputy Secretary and the Vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to try to serve as the principal forum to advise them on biodefense issues and try to synchronize and integrate the authorities and responsibilities across the department into a singular body. Part of that body is absolutely going to be facilitating information flow in and outside of the department and across the department, most importantly. And that council is going to have representatives from across OSD and the Joint Staff and even within the combatant commands and services that are executing this and having to be aware of those types of issues on a daily basis.

Tom Temin And a final question, is there any particular threats that the review staff thought this is something new and emerging? What should we worry about?

Brandi Vann Yeah. So I get this question a lot, what keeps you up at night? So I think the thing that we recognized in the Biodefense Review was that, again, the complexity of the threats and the sheer number of threats that we potentially face in the department and as a nation for national security is so large that it takes us actually relooking at how we structure our preparedness and response activities. And again, our goal in the Biodefense Posture Review, and now in the Council and the department, is to ensure that the reforms that we are going to be laying out over the next few years will provide our force the resilience and the response capabilities to effectively operate, no matter the origin of the incident and no matter where that incident occurs.

Tom Temin Who knows? The most potent weapon might not be the next generation of combat rifle, but just simply coughing on the enemy.

Brandi Vann That’s right, it could be.

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