Bio-threat protections inadequate

Despite the Obama administration’s repeated warnings about the menace of a widespread contagion within the United States, both lawmakers and independent experts are continuing to give low marks to government initiatives designed to detect, track, and protect against those threats.

In recent years, both the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the spread of the Zika virus in Latin America have brought the nature of threat into sharp relief.

In the 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted that the world’s response to Ebola was too slow.

“Gaps in disease surveillance and reporting, limited health care resources, and other factors contributed to the outpacing of the international community’s response in West Africa,” Clapper wrote.

In the most recent Worldwide Threat Assessment, released in February,  Clapper issued an ominous warning in regard to the Zika virus, which he said “is projected to cause up to 4 million cases in 2016; it will probably spread to virtually every country in the hemisphere.”

Earlier this month, that assessment was amplified by researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.  In a study published in the Public Library of Science’s journal PLOS Currents: Outbreaks, they warned that at least 50 U.S. cities are at risk for a Zika Virus outbreak this summer.

 As the effects of climate change spread worldwide, experts warn more that contagions are on their way. And yet, the two Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs meant to protect Americans against these biological threats aren’t up to the task, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

One of these programs, the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, or NBIC, was created in 2007 to be a hub of information and coordination for federal agencies tracking diseases and biological threats. But the mission is suffering, a September 2015 GAO report said, because many federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are not sharing   information with NBIC.  Among the reasons, CDC officials said: legal restrictions that compel them to redact data from reports, a labor-intensive process.  The report said other federal agencies’ officials did not understand the purpose or value of giving resources to NBIC.

“[NBIC doesn’t] have the access to information and data, they don’t have the trust of partners,” said Chris Currie, director of the GAO’s Emergency Management and National Preparedness Team, in an interview.  “What they do provide is good but it isn’t really that useful for the partners.”


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