HHS Controls New National Biodefense Strategy Against 'Poor Man's Nuclear Weapon'

Ebola treatment center in Beni, Eastern Congo

The new National Biodefense Strategy creates a cabinet-level biodefense steering committee led by the Department of Health and Human Services "to work very closely together on this critical need to protect the American people from the threat of biological warfare," National Security Advisor John Bolton told reporters Tuesday at the White House.

"We all focus on nuclear weapons, but biological weapons and chemical weapons are very, very dangerous," Bolton said. "Bio and chem are often referred to as the poor man's nuclear weapon, so they’re particularly attractive to terrorist groups that want to try and cause great damage to us here at home."

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that "biological threats of a manmade, accidental, or naturally occurring nature are very real and they're growing."

"The threats that HHS dealt with under President Obama provided another lesson about the need for a coherent and coordinated strategy," he said. "The 2014 Ebola crisis demanded efforts from all across the government. HHS took the lead on treatment and epidemiological work in West Africa and here in the U.S. But there were significant roles played by the State Department and USAID, as well as for Department of Homeland Security components, like Customs and Border Patrol. It was widely recognized that, early on, the response was not nearly as well coordinated as it should have been."

"So those are a couple of other lessons incorporated into this biodefense strategy.  For the first time, invest accountability in one place -- the Secretary of HHS -- as chairman of a coordinating committee.  And it covers naturally occurring threats for the first time ever."

Asked about the current biothreat, Bolton said the U.S. is "constantly monitoring a range of countries and terrorist groups for the possibility that they would acquire a biological weapons capability that could threaten us."

"And the attack can come in a lot of different ways, either directly in the homeland [or] it could come from people traveling into the United States previously infected. It could come from stockpiles that are smuggled into the United States or may already be here. This is something we speak with our allies about all the time," he added.

Azar emphasized "the importance of non-state actors and even individuals" in bioattacks.

"Remember, the anthrax attacks were conducted by an individual," he said. "So you have terrorist groups, non-state actors. Unfortunately, with the democratization of biotechnology expertise, it’s a dangerous world out there, and many would either seek to do intentional harm or could even inflict accidental harm through lack of appropriate bio-security in labs."

Bolton said HHS was put in charge of the strategy instead of the Department of Homeland Security because "the overwhelming bulk of the scientific and technical expertise in the government on the range of biological threats we face -- including, as the secretary said, epidemiological threats, not just biological weapons attack -- is in HHS."

The HHS secretary was asked about potential internal threats from rogue scientists with access to deadly pathogens. Azar said lab security is "actually a key part of the strategy."

"All of the great research that we do to advance biomedicine, and also even to prepare for countermeasures, has its opposite side, which is the threat potential," he said. "...That involves having to do background checks on individuals who may be touching select agents."

Bolton said there's "no particular immediate threat," but the strategy is "intended to be a living document that we can revise and update in light of the circumstances."

Azar noted that "the innovations in biomedical research that are so wonderful, that can bring so many therapies to us, are also tactics and techniques that can be used with ill will."

"But it can also be rather simple to use biologic agents," he said. "That's the challenge of this and why we have to be so on our guard."