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State, Local Biodefense Inconsistencies 'Placing the Entire Nation at Risk'

biohazard suits at U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick

A grim report on the nation's biodefenses finds that states and localities with no uniform standards on responding to a mass attack or outbreak "will have to fend for themselves while the federal government puts what assets it has available towards ensuring national security and societal stability."

"We can describe scenarios in which fast-moving and deadly diseases spread throughout the nation and the world. We can zero-out resource availability in inventories and spreadsheets, and accurately describe the impact on patient management, waste management, disposition of the dead, public safety, and public health," says the new study from the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. "Despite the predictability these afford, each level of the government has yet to develop sufficiently comprehensive plans for addressing the need to provide for public health, safety, and security during and after large-scale biological events."

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge co-chair the privately funded commission founded in 2014. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth Wainstein round out the panel.

The report focuses on "grave concern" that a large-scale biological event would overwhelm first responders on the front line at the city, state, county and tribal or territorial level.

"Devastation could be vast and swift, and local resources would be very quickly depleted," the report warns, as local governments "will have to fend for themselves for far too long until federal assets arrive and Congress can provide emergency supplemental funding to support response and recovery."

At a January meeting, the panel found that "basic biological preparedness, response, and recovery infrastructure varies widely throughout the United States, placing the entire nation at risk."

"If one community, for example, does not have access to a laboratory in their state that can quickly identify a biological threat, then they are immediately vulnerable and so are those who live in bordering states. It reminds us that states, localities, tribes, and territories play a huge role in national security," states the new report. "We would like to see state governors, territorial governors and administrators, tribal leaders, mayors, borough council presidents, and township supervisors make biodefense a greater priority before biological attacks, accidents, outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics place the lives of their constituents at risk."

The panel offers a chilling scenario: "Plague has broken out in two states and the initial response is slow," with information trickling into governors' offices from hospitals and health departments at the the local level. "Eventually, the federal government offers some preliminary support, but only after they make two frightening discoveries: the disease has been genetically engineered and aerosolized, and two terrorist groups are claiming that they have successfully attacked the United States with plague. Outbreaks are expected to continue for months."