JUST IN: New Bio-Defense Strategy to Eschew ‘One Bug, One Drug’ Programs

By Stew Magnuson

Defense Dept. photo

ARLINGTON, Virginia — A soon-to-be-released review of the Defense Department’s biological defense capabilities will seek to move away from “one bug, one drug” programs that are expensive and take years to develop, a senior officer said Jan. 26.

The Bio-Defense Posture Review is expected to be completed within the next month, said Air Force Col. James Harwell, deputy director for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense at the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Requirements Office.

The bio-defense enterprise will also de-emphasize discovering the origins of biological threats to warfighters, whether they are manmade, accidental or naturally occurring, he said at a National Defense Industrial Association CBRN division meeting.

“Gone are the days where we take long periods of time to identify an emerging threat and build a specific countermeasure to that threat. Science is moving at a pace that allows for new threats to rapidly emerge and to undermine our ability to achieve our National Defense Strategy,” Harwell said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has focused senior leadership on the issue of biodefense like never before, Harwell said.

The review, which was ordered by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III in the summer of 2021, is one indication of how important the issue has become in the Pentagon, he said. While the CBRN enterprise continues to make great strides developing protective gear for chemical threats, no U.S. troops have been exposed to gasses on the battlefield since 1917, he noted.

Meanwhile, the world has seen multiple pandemics in recent years such as COVID-19, Ebola and H1N1, he said.

And while science is moving rapidly to create threats, it can move just as quickly to create countermeasures, he added.

The new strategy will emphasize developing vaccines or therapeutics that can counter families of viruses rather than one single disease, he said.

“We can't afford one bug, one drug. We cannot afford $1 billion for a single vaccine investment. There is just not enough money in the in the piggybank to do that,” Harwell said.

Developing countermeasures rapidly will be more important than determining a disease’s origin, he said.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. William King, NDIA’s CBRN division chair and a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., said previously the Defense Department concentrated on countering weaponized biological agents. There were “firewalls” between developing solutions to counter weapons of mass destruction and naturally occurring diseases.

“The responses are almost exactly the same. Why do we have this self-imposed firewall, this stove-piping of development, of capabilities, capacities, of responses?” he asked.

The idea is to use bio-surveillance capabilities — whether they are sensors, intelligence gathering, or wearable sensors — to be proactive and get ahead of the threat, King said.

The attribution for the disease can come later, he added.

Harwell said the new strategy will also call for machine learning and artificial intelligence to sort through data that can reveal a biological threat before symptoms manifest, he said.

The Defense Department wants to “fuse all that information together so that we see that there's an indication of a change in the environment that allows us to get further to the left. It allows us to respond earlier,” he said.

King noted the Biden administration is working on rereleasing a more detailed unclassified version of its Biodefense National Strategy, which is being worked on concurrently with the defense review. Both reports are intended to be released sometime after February. Harwell speculated that there might be an unclassified version of the defense review released to the public.

Panelists said detecting diseases before they spread takes a whole of government approach, with Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security all having roles to play, along with foreign partners and allies because diseases don’t stop at borders.

Harwell added: “It's not even a whole of government policy. It's a whole society as we increase the resilience of the joint force, and the readiness of our joint force to secure our home.”

There will also be requirements for future biodefense systems to connect to the joint all-domain command and control technologies that are being developed by the Army, Air Force and Navy.

JADC2, as it is known, is an initiative to link sensors and shooters via a network using artificial intelligence in order to speed up decision-making on the battlefield.

Some of the biodefense technologies have already made it to the Army’s Project Convergence, a yearly test of the service’s JADC2 capabilities. Some of those have been legacy programs, Harwell said

Future requirements will call for biodefense tech to connect to JADC2 systems as well as the Joint Forces Network. “That’s hard, but it’s harder if we’re doing it after the fact,” he added.

Harwell was asked if the renewed emphasis on biological defense meant that radiological, nuclear and chemical protection for warfighters was getting the short shrift.

The “pendulum” maybe swinging toward biodefense because of the recent pandemics, but the CBRN Joint Program Office continues to deliver cutting edge technologies for the other categories, he said.

“We have great detectors. We have great protective ensembles, and we have the ability to decontaminate. We want to maintain that advancement and that is I think where the investment strategy is going,” he said.

Despite the renewed emphasis on biodefense, Congress gave CBRN programs a 7 percent cut in the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act and budget bills.

King ascribed the cut to specific vaccine programs that the Defense Department said were not ready to be executed yet.

Harwell noted that the Defense Department is “just one part of the security pie.” HHS, for example, has seen plus-ups in biodefense.

“I'm not aware of any significant tradeoffs that are being made that are affecting our ability to deliver,” he said.


Topics: Chem Bio Protection

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