The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how emerging biological threats can cause catastrophic loss of life, economic damage, societal instability and global insecurity. As a result, there is a need for an increased priority of monitoring for and warning about the threats  of infectious diseases and other global health risks.

Biological threats can include naturally occurring outbreaks of pathogens, such as Ebola; biotechnology, such as gene modification and genetic data; and bioweapons, such as anthrax. Biological threats are a serious national security challenge that the United States and the international community need to prepare for, according to the U.S. 2018 National Biodefense Strategy.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which tracks emerging biological threats, pathogens are often stored in laboratories that can lack appropriate biosafety or biosecurity measures. The lack of proper safety and security measures raises the risk of either an outbreak through an accidental pathogen release or the diversion of a pathogen by actors such as terrorist organizations — which increases the risk that another public health emergency like COVID-19 occurs.

In the future, biological threats can introduce new risks for which federal agencies that have a role in responding to biological threats will need to prepare and respond to, GAO notes. Medical intelligence — which includes the collection, evaluation and analysis of health threats and issues — is crucial in addressing these types of risks of global health threats and plays a vital role in helping the U.S. prepare for this threat.

To ensure preparedness for biological threats in the future, U.S. federal agencies and the international community need to implement a number of actions, including:

  • Developing an integrated and comprehensive biodefense strategy.
  • Assessing biodefense capabilities and gaps.
  • Providing guidance on how biological threats should be incorporated and prioritized in joint exercises.
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities to enhance coordination.
  • Reviewing whether additional guidance is required to coordinate the sharing of medical intelligence.
  • Establishing procedures for conducting outreach to share medical intelligence.

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