WASHINGTON – During a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan spoke with witnesses about how the federal government can strengthen biosecurity defenses and the Strategic National Stockpile.
To watch Senator Hassan’s questioning click here.
Detecting Unknown Biological Agents
Senator Hassan began by discussing shortcomings with the BioWatch program – the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) mechanism for detecting airborne biological agents like anthrax.
“BioWatch is only able to detect biological agents from a limited known library of threats, which leaves a critical blind spot in our detection system, especially since naturally occurring disease outbreaks and accidental releases are likely to consist of previously unknown biological agents,” said Senator Hassan. “The Department is attempting to replace BioWatch with a new program, but the readiness… of that technology is really years away.”
In response, Dr. Asha M. George, the Executive Director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, stated that a successful program would be comprised of various detection methods from different sources.
“I think we need a vast panoply of [detection methods] spread out all over the place, and gather all that information together. Because if you look at how we detect disease anyway—whether we have a detector or not—we’re always drawing on a number of pieces of information,” said Dr. George.
Detecting Biological Threats in Coordination with State and Local Entities
Senator Hassan also discussed strengthening data-sharing between state and local health care facilities and the federal government in order to detect the next biological threat.
“One way that we can detect biological threats is screening patients at hospitals and other health care facilities,” said Senator Hassan. “Much of this data would be collected by non-federal entities, so federal agencies would need to closely coordinate with them. Unfortunately, as the Government Accountability Office reports, the current National Biodefense Strategy does not assess non-federal biodefense capabilities, nor does it establish a mechanism for better coordination with non-federal entities.”
Christopher Currie, Director of Homeland Security and Justice, U.S. Government Accountability Office, responded that “I couldn’t think of a better example of a lesson learned from COVID-19 than better coordination with non-federal entities. I mean we saw this with not just issues related to the Strategic National Stockpile, but how supplies are distributed throughout the country, you know with that being different in every state… We have these lessons learned that we’ve seen in COVID… These need to be formalized.”
Senator Hassan’s Work to Strengthen the Strategic National Stockpile
Senator Hassan also spoke about the Strategic National Stockpile, which is maintained by the federal government to ensure access to medical supplies during public health emergencies, saying that it “should be a critical tool for responding to biosecurity incidents by quickly providing medical supplies to aid in the response.”
Mr. Curie shared that “I think one of the biggest challenges that we’ve identified is just the lack of understanding at all levels of government, including across the federal partnership, about how the stockpile is distributed and procured.”
Senator Hassan also highlighted her legislation to help reduce America’s dependence on foreign adversaries like China for critical supplies, boost domestic manufacturing, and improve transparency to ensure the effectiveness of the Strategic National Stockpile during future public health emergencies.
“Given these challenges, I am committed to working with my colleagues on this Committee and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to pass provisions that we have in a bipartisan bill, which is called the Strengthening America’s Strategic National Stockpile Act. It already passed the House. We will continue to work to see if we can get it through on the Senate side.”