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PCAST Letter to the President on Action Needed to Protect Against Biological Attack

The threat of a biological attack represents a unique challenge to national defense that could be exacerbated by rapid developments in biological science and technology.

In a letter to the President released today, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) explains that advanced biotechnology offers the promise of transforming the way the world treats disease, but it also has the potential for destructive use by both states and technically competent individuals with access to modern laboratory facilities. As the security challenges rapidly evolve together with the advances in technology, the Federal Government’s own thinking needs to keeps pace in order to protect the Nation.

The letter, “Action Needed to Protect against Biological Attack,” offers guidance about how the United States can take advantage of its strong scientific community to prepare for and respond to pathogens of all kinds.

PCAST identifies immediate actions as well as medium- and long-term investments the Federal Government should make. PCAST recommends that the White House make renewed efforts to strengthen leadership for situational awareness, threat assessment, response coordination, and strategic planning and accountability for deliberate biological attacks and natural disease outbreaks.

State and local infrastructures are the front line in any fight against disease, but Federal leadership can help those networks and institutions share data and identify patterns that reach beyond a single region. PCAST recommends strengthening a national laboratory network for pathogen surveillance and cutting-edge genomic sequencing to spot and identify these potential risks early. PCAST also recommends that the President work with Congress to establish a standing Public Health Emergency Response Fund, so that the Federal government can be better mobilized to understand and respond to outbreaks before they become major crises.

Continuing scientific, technical, and regulatory developments allow the medical community to respond to new outbreaks faster than ever before. Developing medical countermeasures to naturally occurring outbreaks today lays the groundwork for responding to potential engineered biological threats in the future. PCAST supports extending this progress into the foreseeable future, setting the ambitious ten-year goal that, for infectious organisms for which effective approaches to creating vaccines exist, the United States should have the ability to accomplish, within a six-month period, the complete development, manufacture, clinical testing, and licensure of a vaccine. PCAST also urges vigorous basic and applied research efforts with the longer-term goal of developing new types of countermeasures that could be delivered within days of a new pathogen’s detection and characterization. Combined with better, earlier detection, this rapid response will keep more people safe, even in the face of new and unknown threats.

In this letter, PCAST builds on its previous recommendations from the 2014 report Combating Antibiotic Resistance: Investing in the development of new antibiotic and antiviral drugs has far-reaching implications, protecting against both natural and manmade threats.

A solid biodefense strategy does more than protect the Nation from deliberate biological attacks. It also helps Federal agencies work together to react to outbreaks of naturally occurring diseases, like the flu or the Zika virus. These recommendations position the United States to prepare for the next outbreak, from wherever it may come.


Christopher Chyba and Wanda Austin are the co-chairs of the PCAST biodefense working group.

PCAST is an advisory group of the Nation’s leading scientists and engineers, appointed by the President to augment the science and technology advice availability to him from inside the White House and from cabinet departments and other Federal agencies. For more information about PCAST, please visit the PCAST website.