Biosecurity and biodefense refer to preventative measures taken to protect people from biological agents and weapons.
More comprehensive biosecurity programs have emerged following terrorist attacks. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) assumed a leading role in programs after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax mailings. “In recent years, toxic chemicals have attracted the attention of terrorists because of the potentially devastating effects that such weapons could have on the general population,” the NIAID said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has identified approximately 100 toxic industrial chemicals, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 600 chemicals in its Toxic Release Inventory.
Who Is Responsible for Biosecurity?
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
In 2003, NIAID was assigned lead responsibility within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for civilian biodefense research. The agency focuses on research and early development of medical countermeasures against terrorist threats from infectious diseases and radiation exposure. Later, NIAID assumed responsibility for developing medical countermeasures against chemical threats to the civilian population.
Primary activities include the following.
- Developing drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for a larger emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases portfolio. The NIAID notes that the “research focus has evolved from the traditional ‘one bug–one drug’ approach to a more flexible strategy using sophisticated genomic and proteomic platforms focused on developing broad‐spectrum therapies effective against entire classes of pathogens.”
- Conducting and supporting research to better understand viruses, bacteria and other infectious agents that cause diseases of public health concern.
- Guiding all activities of the NIH in the development of a medical countermeasures program against radiological and nuclear threats. This plan promotes research leading to new and effective medical countermeasures to assess, diagnose and care for civilians exposed to radiation and mitigate the harmful effects of such exposure.
- Serving as the main biodefense research institute addressing chemical threats under the Medical Chemical Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats Program. The program takes into account ongoing efforts and partnerships with other federal agencies, academia and industry, with the goal of integrating cutting-edge research with the latest technological advances in science and medicine for a more rapid and effective response during an emergency.
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Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
The DHS builds preparedness and improves rapid response for biosecurity issues and topics. There are several programs and centers that support these two goals.
- Sharing public health and intelligence information with state and local partners through local fusion centers. Fusion centers receive, analyze, gather and share threat-related information.
- The National Biological Threat Characterization Center conducts studies and laboratory experiments to better understand and counteract current and future biological threats.
- Completing Buffer Zone Plans and Site Assistance Visits of select agency facilities to boost physical safety and security. This provides expert analysis of security vulnerabilities and how to remedy them. Measures also provide funding to prepare state and local law enforcement who will respond first to any incident at these facilities.
- The National Biosurveillance Integration Center analyzes and distributes key information about health and disease events to help ensure the nation’s responses are well-informed, save lives and minimize economic impact. The center serves as a bridge between federal, state, local, territorial and tribal partners to integrate information from thousands of sources about biological threats to human, animal, plant and environmental health. As a result, early warning and situational awareness improve.
Improving Rapid Response
- Developing a concept of operations for a rapid federal response to support state and local jurisdiction plans, based on the critical need to dispense life-saving medical countermeasures to those potentially exposed to biological agents. The program focuses on positioning medical countermeasures nearer to personnel serving in critical response roles.
- Developing and conducting a series of biodefense response exercises involving more than 1,000 state and local officials. These exercises help ensure that officials at all levels of government are able to carry out their functions.
- The National Bioforensic Analysis Center is dedicated to defending the nation against biological threats, supporting intelligence assessments, preparedness planning, response, emerging threat characterization and bioforensic analyses. The center has a staff of more than 150 employees who have helped fill critical shortfalls in scientific knowledge of biological agents needed to defend the public from acts of terrorism.
Efforts from the NIAID, HHS, NIH and DHS help support the national biodefense program. There are four essential pillars of this program, according to the DHS.
- Threat awareness
- Prevention and protection
- Surveillance and detection
- Response and recovery
Further measures are underway to protect Americans. The DHS is constructing the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas, to be a state-of-the-art, biocontainment laboratory for the study of diseases that threaten the animal agricultural industry and public health. It will strengthen the nation’s ability to conduct research, develop vaccines, diagnose emerging diseases and train veterinarians.
The NBAF will be the first laboratory facility in the United States to provide maximum biocontainment (BSL-4) space to study high-consequence zoonotic diseases affecting livestock. Approximately 75 percent of new and emerging infectious diseases are classified as zoonotic diseases, which may be transmitted from animals to humans. The NBAF will help protect the nation’s food supply and general public health. The facility will begin operations in 2022.
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