Who is in charge of carrying out our nation’s biodefense policy? This question was raised repeatedly in Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Labor-Health and Human Services subcommittee. The hearing focused on bioterrorism, biosecurity, and medical countermeasures in contrast to last week’s senate hearing on terrorism during which the topic was barely mentioned.
The hearing was divided into two parts, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifying first about the department’s recent review of the entire medical countermeasure enterprise.
The second panel comprised Colonel Randall J. Larsen, CEO of The Weapons of Mass Destruction Center, Eric Rose, CEO and Chairman of Siga Technologies, and Andrew Pavia, Chief of the University of Utah’s Division of Pediatric Diseases. This panel provided a perspective from outside the government on current biodefense and biosecurity policy.
During his colorful and animated testimony Col. Larsen asked, “Who is in charge?” referring to our nation’s biodefense architecture and strategy. He argued that the threat of bioterrorism is too important and confronting it involves too many federal agencies with jurisdiction over too many different areas for there not to be one person in charge of and responsible for coordinating these efforts.
In his questioning, Sen. Harkin turned the question around and asked Col. Larsen for his thoughts on who should be in charge of the U.S. biodefense strategy. Before stating his opinion, Larsen explained how former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, now Chair and Vice Chair respectively of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, answer that question.
They argue that the Vice President “should be in charge of the entire WMD and terrorism portfolio, including and especially the biothreat.” (Emphasis added.) Because biodefense requires the work coordination of so many federal, state, and local departments and agencies, they explain, “there must be one senior official in the administration whom everyone understands has the authority to speak for the president and to resolve disputes in a timely manner between cabinet secretaries. . . Put simply, there are only two people in Washington that all cabinet secretaries address as ‘Sir.’” Col. Larsen then stated his view that there should be Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense as there was under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
Are Graham and Talent correct? Should there be one senior official in charge of biodefense? Or would it be better as Col. Larsen suggests to have a Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense?