White House sets 'new direction' in biodefense strategy

Donald Trump, United States President, Photo Date: February 23, 2018 / Cropped Photo: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration on Tuesday released a new biodefense strategy that it said takes a more comprehensive approach to preparing the nation for deliberate biological attacks and natural outbreaks of infectious disease.

The goal of the strategy, which was required by Congress, is to more effectively prevent, prepare for and respond to biological threats, which the document said are "among the most serious threats" facing the U.S. and the world.

"Biological threats emanate from many sources, and they know no borders," Trump said in a written statement. "They have great potential to disrupt the economy, exact a toll on human life, and tear at the very fabric of society."

Trump said his administration's plan takes a "new direction" with a more coordinated, centralized approach based on lessons learned from past incidents such as the West Africa Ebola epidemic of 2014.

The Department of Health and Human Services is designated as the lead agency in coordinating federal biodefense actions and assessing whether the plan is working.

A privately sponsored group that has studied biodefense issues since 2014 applauded the White House's strategy. The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense has warned that the U.S. is dangerously vulnerable to a large-scale biological attack and has urged Washington to develop a more comprehensive strategy.

"The White House made a great start with the implementation plan they included with the strategy," said Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who is co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel. "We look forward to the White House assigning responsibilities for each element of this plan to specific federal departments and agencies, and establishing timelines for their completion."

At a White House briefing, John Bolton, the president's national security adviser, told reporters there is "no particular immediate threat" of biological attack.

Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters the threats are "very real and they're growing." He said the strategy is the first to include naturally occurring threats like the Ebola virus.

Previous approaches focused on the threat of terrorists unleashing deadly germs or a nation such as North Korea launching a biological attack.