Revisiting the Department of Defense Revised Biosecurity Posture  

Sep 22, 2023

This week’s episode of Clear and Present podcast takes a closer look at biodefense and the Department of Defense’s revised biosecurity postures. We’re joined by Dr. Diane DiEuliis from the National Defense University, who’ll walk us through the current and future states of biodefense. Tune in now and let us know what you think! The episode is available on iTune, Spotify and Google Podcast. 

Transcript

Jim:

Welcome to another edition of our podcast, Clear and Present, where we try to address some of the more contemporary and pressing issues of biosecurity and biodefense in light of not only that community, but the public writ large. Today’s episode will be an interesting one because what it really speaks to is the need for reexamination of biodefense and biosecurity, most notably prompted by the Department of Defense’s recent posturing towards the collaborative biodefense reforms, a formal effort undertaken by the Department of Defense to reevaluate the current postures, preparedness, capabilities, readiness, and responsivity of the United States and its allies, biodefense, and biosecurity infrastructures and functions.

Here to speak with me about this today is someone we’re all familiar with on the podcast, my friend and colleague, Doctor Diane DiEuliis. Doctor DiEuliis is Distinguished Research Fellow in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate at National Defense University. Diane and I have been actually working in this space for a number of years, most notably, of the past couple of years, she and I published a couple of papers, one that appears in the journal, Parameters, and another which appears in the journal, mSphere, and have actually discussed the need for these types of reposturings, reorientations for US and international allied biosecurity and biodefense capabilities. I think it really begs a number of questions about what this new set of reforms means, how it’ll go, and what that portends for the future. Diane, always a pleasure to have you. Welcome aboard.

Diane DiEuliis:

Hey, Jim. It’s great to be talking to you once again today. Happy to be on the podcast.

Jim:

Wonderful. The first question I have for you that I think is of probably primary importance is, why? I mean, if, in fact, we’ve been cooking along, everything status quo, I guess the question here is, what does that status quo mean? Why has the DOD proposed these postural reforms and reviews? And I guess why now?

Diane DiEuliis:

Right. Jim, that is a great question. I like that you introduced in this podcast some of the earlier work we had done in this area, because we’ve been asking these questions for a while about what does biosecurity reform look like post-COVID? We’ve been talking about how does, and how should, DOD balance its chemical and biological weapons defense programs with force health protection and things like that? We’ve been asking these questions, but I think your question about why this posture review and why now is really great, because I think maybe people do not realize that the Department of Defense has had a nuclear posture review for decades. In that review, it is taking a look at the department’s posture on nuclear defense for every couple of years. We’ve never had one for biological defense. This is, in a sense, the very first one. So I think that in itself is new and interesting.

So why has the department decided to do this? Well, first and foremost, the department has recognized that the emerging bio threat landscape, which we have talked about before on this podcast as well, is continuing to expand, and new things, new bio threats may be coming down the pike, and the department wants to be prepared for those. At the same time, we’ve all just gone through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the DOD realized that there were many things they could do to improve the force’s ability to operate in biological threat environments like COVID-19. So not just the idea that forces may have to operate in a bio threat scenario, but they actually have to operate in scenarios in which there are naturally occurring diseases. Those may become more frequent in the areas of responsibility that the DOD has. So for all of these reasons, emerging bio threats, naturally occurring bio threats, and, of course, traditional bio threats, the DOD decided to take a hard look at how they are managing biodefense across the entire department. That’s what we see in the result of this very first biodefense posture review.

Jim:

I think a couple of questions come out of that. They’re embedded within that because the answer, as you gave, is equally as rich as the task that’s been posed to the DOD. I guess, like anything else, these types of review postures and resumptions of interest are always predicated upon some form of gap analysis. Coming out of that, I guess the question for you is, have there been identified gaps? In other words, were we doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and if yes, how yes, and if no, how no? Obviously, the podcast is on the low side, so there may be certain things that we simply can’t divulge as guilty knowledge. But to your view, at least, what are those areas that we’ve done well, and what are those areas that you think the DOD are looking to, to say, “Not quite. Maybe necessary, but not sufficient”?

Diane DiEuliis:

Right. Right. What a great question, Jim. As you know, the DOD has components of biodefense embedded across the department. The Department of Defense does research. They’re involved in developing medical countermeasures for various numbers of bio threats. They have a very large force health protection effort that’s looking at always improving and expanding upon the general health of everyone in the force. So it is not for lack of effort, as you’ve said, but looking across what the gaps might be. By the way, some of those gaps were recognized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of things have been identified. I could give you a couple of examples. One is trying to better understand the threat, and know where threats are coming from with an earlier warning in mind. In this regard, the DOD wants to step up its capabilities in biosurveillance. Can we be doing better biosurveillance around the world, particularly in areas where DOD personnel are deployed? Another gap that was recognized is that during COVID, we had to be able to get medical countermeasures, supplies, PPE, that is, personal protective equipment, to individuals wherever they might be around the world. We came to realize we have a lot of stockpiles, but we don’t always know everything that’s in them. We don’t always know when these medicines might expire. So the posture review calls for a common operating picture, if you will, that designs a dashboard so that people can see, the commands, and those who need medical supplies and countermeasures, at any given time, they’ll be able to see where those things are and what status they are in. So this is going to be pretty helpful as well.

Now, obviously, the last thing is always the hardest thing, which is, how can the department better coordinate across all the different components that have a share of the responsibility in biodefense? That’s where they’ve come up with this biodefense council. The council is going to have a lot of responsibilities, but its primary responsibility is going to be to coordinate all across the department. Those are three examples I can give you of gaps that were readily identified and that the biodefense posture review attempts to address.

Jim:

If those are the gaps, what are the reforms? Or at least, what are the directions or domains of those reforms, both as you would see it and as perhaps might be proposed?

Diane DiEuliis:

Yeah. The reforms are numerous. As I mentioned, this biodefense council has its work cut out for us in coordinating across all of the different reforms that are going to be put into place. For example, I mentioned medical countermeasures. Well, they want to strengthen the requirements pipeline for getting those countermeasures to the finish line. They want to do more and better research to look at what our responsiveness and development of countermeasures might be to novel or emerging threats. They want to strengthen collaboration with our allies and partners around the globe. Obviously, if we’re doing biosurveillance around the globe, that’s something that we’re going to collaborate with other countries, and other components of the US federal government as well.

These are just some of the examples that I can give. Again, there are numerous things that they intend to reform, as are spelled out in the biodefense posture review. But I’ll just finish by saying, in the depth of this document, they bin the reform initiatives into three different categories, one called understanding the threat, a second called preparing and protecting the force, and the third one called mitigating the impact. In other words, let’s find out early when these things might be happening. Let’s prepare and protect as much as we can. And if the worst happens, let’s make sure we can mitigate and minimize the impacts.

Jim:

So let me ask. I mean, clearly, part of the plan here is to work cooperatively with our international allies and partners, but implicit to any discussion of biosurveillance is also the need to keep at least a finger on the pulse of our international peer competitors, as well as potential proxies that those peer competitors may engage. So here, too, there’s a bit of a dilemma, if not a conundrum. I mean, to understand what it is they are doing, and whoever they may be, what risks are posed, if not direct threats? Then part of that would be to develop those countermeasures. We would have to engage in particular activities that, at least at face value, may have a peculiar sniff.

Let me just give you an example so we can be clear to the listening audience. Let’s just say that we have a peer competitor who develops something along the lines of a very rapidly spreading virus. We use the COVID-19 crisis as an exemplar. Again, let me be very, very clear. There’s nothing to indicate, from what I’ve seen or from what you’ve seen, that COVID was, in fact, an intentionally manufactured bioweapon. Gain of function issues, lab leaks, well, all of those things, I think, go into the mix, but direct intentionality from global propagation was not the intent there.

But let’s just say that, based upon the disruption that we’ve seen from COVID, a multidimensional disruption, certainly biomedical disruption, economic disruption, social disruption, even military disruption, I mean, let’s face it, the only time we’ve seen an operational fleet carrier taken out of service due to a medical emergency was during COVID, and all the ramifications that occurred. So let’s just say we get wind of the fact that a peer competitor and/or their proxies are developing a super bug, a precision pathogen, as you and I like to refer to it. Well, to be able to be prepared for such a thing, we have to invest in the necessary research that goes along with that, which may be gain of function research, bio agent research, and there may be some provocativity, if not contention, that goes along with that. Any thoughts or any discussion as to what that might entail, obtain, and necessitate?

Diane DiEuliis:

Well, Jim, that is a tough question. I agree with many of the things that you said embedded in that question as well. I should mention, first of all, that the biodefense posture review does talk about biosecurity issues, in particular with regard to our laboratories, ensuring the safety and security of the laboratories, ensuring adherence with national and international norms in that space, and striving to help develop some of those norms in terms of biosecurity. So I think that there is language in the posture review that speaks to that. But getting more specifically to your question, because, as we know, perception means a lot, and even pursuing some of these experiments as you’ve outlined, can give the perception of the development of bioweapons or other kinds of things. So I think one of the approaches that is valuable in this regard is not focusing our preparedness effort necessarily on a one bug, one drug kind of approach, but looking across, like you mentioned, a targeted virus, for example.

If we had medical countermeasures in development that were broad spectrum antiviral or broad spectrum kinds of vaccine approaches that could encompass even a specifically designed bio threat, I think that puts us in a better position for bringing this research into a more generalized focus, because it’s part of a force health focus, as well as an approach to address bioweapons. Of course, this isn’t the only solution in that space. There is going to be effort devoted to nonmedical countermeasures. I mentioned personal protective equipment before. I think that’s going to be part of the initiatives as well. But those are just some ideas I could throw out there in regards to your question.

Jim:

All right. Let me play angel’s artifact and devil’s advocate if I could.

Diane DiEuliis:

Okay.

Jim:

This is the Department of Defense.

Diane DiEuliis:

Right.

Jim:

It’s axiomatic to the defense stance that there are two components of defense. One is defense, and one is offense. There’s a gray zone that exists in terms of what types of surveillance operations might be seen as pro-offensive, and if, in fact, there is surveillance, that would then demonstrate through said surveillance that there is a real risk, if not threat, if not clear and present harm, then the question also becomes, well, what do you do about it? Have you perceived that there’s any interest or any directionality towards creating those types of infrastructures and functions to be able to be more proactive, recognizing that the biosecurity and biodefense space is an engagement space, non-kinetically as well as potentially kinetically?

Diane DiEuliis:

Right. Part of this is embedded, Jim, in this idea of working better with allies and partners. If I can just take us back to COVID-19 for a second, remember that some of these reform initiatives were proposed in light of after-action reports and examinations of how the Department of Defense handled the COVID-19 pandemic. The world is not currently equal in their biodefense, biosecurity, and even biosafety capabilities, so one of the things that was recognized and recommended in the post-COVID environment is we need to understand better what the capabilities of our allies and partners are, in terms of what can they bring to the fight like COVID-19?

Now, obviously, that goes over into the larger question of, what could our allies and partners do in defense of a perpetrated bio threat as well? So I think the way the department wants to start is understanding, what are the capabilities of our allies and partners? How can we build some norms and strategies in that space, in the wake of COVID-19, that would help us better prepare for bio threats if there should be one in the future?

Now, completely understand this idea about we have adversaries who may be interested in using these kinds of bio threats against us in the future, particularly given when they see which specific vulnerabilities were shown during COVID-19 and the DOD’s … Although readiness was not poorly affected, you brought up the case of the Theodore Roosevelt. There were many other kinds of vulnerabilities that were widely visible to our adversaries. So I agree that we have to take a proactive approach in protecting against those vulnerabilities. But some might say that a strong defense helps provide a strong deterrent. If we can shore up the vulnerabilities that we were made aware of during COVID-19, that may actually provide somewhat of a deterrent going forward. I know it’s not the full answer, Jim, that you’re looking for.

Jim:

No, it’s a great answer because, as you and I both know, and for our listening audience, both Diane and I work with a group at the Pentagon, in the Joint Staff, called the Strategic Multilayer Assessment Branch. As you know, there’s an ongoing project through the SMA at Pentagon to really fortify both the narrative and the realities of what deterrence in the 21st century global stage means. Deterrence is part of that new narrative. I mean that we don’t just talk about defense. We talk about deterrence, which, by its nature, tends to be preemptive, primarily on the non-kinetic side. So that’s an interesting point that you make. It’s ironic that the vessel that was essentially incapacitated off operational line was the big stick. The idea of, “Let’s walk softly but carry a big stick,” what does that then mean for the future of biodefense, particularly in light of those events? Well, that’s significant. So what’s next, Diane? What do you see happening over the horizon, the probability horizon at very, very least, for the next two to five years?

Diane DiEuliis:

Yeah. That’s a great question as well, Jim. I know that one of the first steps, as I mentioned, is going to be the creation of this department-wide representation biodefense council. There’ll be people from across the department, from the commands, from the labs, et cetera, that will have a seat on this council. They’ll begin to coordinate activities and put into place some of the things that I have mentioned. My sense is that there will be an implementation plan to work out how things are getting implemented across the department that have been proposed in the posture review, and they’ll come back to this council and review these things periodically. I believe there is an intent to have an implementation plan for the biosurveillance efforts and some of the other things.

Of course, there is a request for money in the upcoming budget. You may have heard of the 800 million dollar price tag that comes along with these biodefense efforts. Of course, we are in September right now. We do not yet have a budget from our Congress, so that remains a bit of a question mark. But there is a budget associated with this, and we’ll have to see how that pans out in terms of what DOD will be able to do and actually implement from what’s been proposed.

Jim:

Your thought is that that potential 800-million-dollar appropriation allocation, that’s going to be DOD focal, or that’s going to go beyond the DOD to try to conjoin, let’s say, a whole of government effort?

Diane DiEuliis:

Well, the money would go to the DOD for the effort, but, of course, DOD would be in partnership and coordination with the broader biodefense enterprise across the federal government. One thing that I neglected to mention when we first started having this conversation, Jim, is that although many of the things proposed in the biodefense posture review are similar things that appear in the national biodefense strategy, which applies to all departments and agencies of federal government, the biodefense posture review is specifically inward looking to the DOD.

It doesn’t mean that DOD is the lead on those efforts for all of the federal government. For example, as DOD mounts a stronger biosurveillance effort, that effort is in the interest of the Department of Defense. Of course, it will conjoin with broader efforts done by Health and Human Services, the CDC, other efforts around the world. DOD is not sitting in the driver’s seat of those international efforts, but DOD will have a big role to play there, particularly for their own forces moving forward. So again, we’ll have to see how it goes with the 800-million-dollar price tag. But presumably, it will be in conjunction with other departments and agencies.

Jim:

This is a multi-year effort as proposed, correct?

Diane DiEuliis:

Yes, sir. It is. We will see going forward exactly what can be implemented out of this very ambitious but well-thought-out biodefense posture review.

Jim:

Yes, we will. As it evolves, I mean, Diane, of course, always, you can come back, and we can discuss further. As these things develop and as certain things become tractionable, I think that helps to really provide some insights as to what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what comes next. Diane, thank you so much for being on board once again. Look forward to our conversations in the future.

Diane DiEuliis:

Jim, you’re very welcome. I’d be happy to come back and have another conversation about this.

Jim:

Great. Until then. Thanks very much. Thanks for tuning into yet another episode of Clear and Present. We look forward to your questions and providing those answers to those questions, not only during our weekly podcast, but to our ongoing interactions. Thanks so much for tuning in, turning on, and staying with us at the tip of the spear.

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