How America can stop the next Ebola scare or biological attack

Ebola entering the United States resulted in confusion, showing the need for centralized biodefense leadership.
Ebola entering the United States resulted in confusion, showing the need for centralized biodefense leadership. AP

Our elected leaders have no greater responsibility than to protect and safeguard the American people. That imperative guided us when we served in public office after September 2001. Although the government has successfully addressed many homeland security challenges since then, the United States is unfortunately still underprepared to confront a biological threat.

Each day, we face the possibility of an infectious disease outbreak, an intentional bioterror attack, or an accidental release of a pathogen from a research facility.

With the right approach in place, we can prevent some of these instances and reduce the risk of others. But as recent events demonstrate, we are not prepared. That is why we convened the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense in 2014 to examine the national state of defense against biological attacks and infectious diseases.

Throughout a series of public meetings in 2014 and this year, we scrutinized the spectrum of biodefense activities by Republican and Democratic administrations. We identified substantial achievements but also found serious gaps that leave the homeland vulnerable.

The American people witnessed recent evidence of these gaps when the entry of Ebola into the United States resulted in significant confusion over roles and responsibilities.

Our panel determined that the United States remains vulnerable to such threats because we lack strong centralized leadership at the highest level of government. No single individual is given the charge and authority to corral the dozen responsible departments and agencies into a cohesive and effective whole.

We identified three primary symptoms that result from this lack of leadership: insufficient coordination across the federal government; inadequate focus on collaboration with and support for nonfederal stakeholders who handle critical activities like surveillance and response; and a risk aversion that is stifling the innovative solutions required to solve challenging technological and governance problems.

These symptoms are not abstract. If these symptoms were rectified, hospitals would have the guidance they need to handle Ebola, city governments would have the support necessary to mass-dispense medical countermeasures, and industry would have the incentives and direction required to solve our greatest challenges in countermeasure development and biodetection technology.

The nation needs a top-level leader who recognizes the severity of the biological threat and possesses the authority and political will to defend against it. We recommend that this be the vice president. The vice president should establish a White House Biodefense Coordination Council, unify the biodefense budget, and develop a national strategy for biodefense.

Our report provides 33 recommendations that we believe will advance our status as a prepared nation, from enhanced intelligence collection, to protection of pathogen data and cybersecurity, to overhaul of the Select Agent Program, to U.S.-led international efforts in public-health response and biological-weapons diplomacy.

In our report, we offer specific and practical actions to fix vulnerabilities. The members of our panel are committed to working together until we make sure our country is adequately protected.

Tom Ridge was the nation’s first secretary of homeland security and the 43d governor of Pennsylvania. Former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman spent six years as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. They wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.