If America were to be beset by a biological or chemical weapons attack, who would be in charge of responding?
According to the consensus of the post-9/11 Commission Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense arrived at during its fourth and final meeting last week, “The federal government doesn’t have a good answer to that question.”
“The last thing we want to do is experience a successful bio-attack in the United States and not be in a position to respond,” said former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). “It’s hard to get people’s attention about biological and chemical threats that can’t be seen or touched but have devastating consequences nonetheless. We have to make this a public health issue.”
Following Rogers’s testimony, panel co-chair Tom Ridge presided over five discussions that explored methods of responding to biological and chemical weapons attacks — and the “leadership vacuum” that plagues response efforts – especially the response to a large-scale, mass casualty bio or chemical attack.
“The federal government has stated that a public health disaster or pandemic is one of the top strategic threats our country faces,” said Dr. Kenneth Bernard, a former biodefense official in the Clinton and Bush administrations. “Yet, we were still largely unprepared for the Ebola outbreak this year. We’re not managing our leadership properly.”
Three veterans of the Clinton and Bush administrations spoke of a “balkanized” response to biological and chemical threats. They called for future presidents to make biodefense a bigger priority — and to delegate authority to a White House official to coordinate the activities of federal agencies.