White House, scientists discuss biological threats
The Obama administration recently convened the first in what could be a series of meeting with dozens of biological scientists and research analysts in an effort to bolster the White House's evolving strategy on bioterrorism, Global Security Newswire has learned.
The Aug. 13 meeting at the White House Conference Center brought together roughly 40 participants to discuss "policies to prevent intentional biothreats," according to one international analyst who attended the session and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The discussion was led by Laura Holgate, the National Security Council's senior director for WMD terrorism and threat reduction, and James Petro, a top official in the office, one expert told GSN early last week.
Participants said the discussion focused on three broad themes: biological threats to the nation, existing international initiatives used to combat bioterrorism, and the role nongovernment organizations could play in the administration's strategy.
The conversation also addressed ways the White House could approach the Biological Weapons Convention and its 2011 review conference, including reaffirming adherence to the principles of the treaty or finding pragmatic alternatives to the compact.
"The administration is trying to think through what the agenda will be for addressing the challenges of bioterrorism," Brian Finlay, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center who attended the meeting, told GSN.
The large number of government and independent reports and executive orders about biological threats means "there's just a lot of grist for the mill," another biological research expert said. The discussion was not intended to address specific plans for biological defense, she said.
"It was not about how much should be put into [Project Bioshield] or anything at that level," the expert added, referring to the program intended to promote development of countermeasures against weapons of mass destruction.
However, the summit left some attendees wondering when the administration's strategy for dealing with the threat of biological terrorism -- the intentional release of disease-causing materials such as anthrax or smallpox --would be settled or what it would look like.
"I didn't get the sense they had a clear, definitive policy direction, but I think they're trying to get one down," the international analyst said. The administration's goals were not discussed at the meeting, he added. Finlay said he believes the White House has the "broad parameters of a new plan" but is not sure what it will ultimately entail.
"The focus of the conversation was on the prevention of biothreats, so I believe that is their general strategy," according to the research expert. The White House "may have an expansive definition, but their emphasis was on prevention instead of crisis management."
Crisis management, which was emphasized by the Bush administration, is generally defined as the ability to detect a biological event in process and to reduce its scope. Prevention emphasizes actions that could be taken to stop an attack before it occurs.
There was a general sense that the meeting was important outreach to the nongovernment community, the analyst said.
"The last eight years have been sort of tough" as the Bush administration rejected a draft protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention, leading to the collapse of an effort to strengthen the treaty with formal compliance measures, he said. "It's good that we have open avenues to discuss now."Domestic Dangers and International Activities
Conversation on domestic issues emphasized oversight of the life science community, including biosafety and biosecurity, the analyst said.
Biosafety is generally defined as measures intended to prevent the release of infectious agents within a laboratory or the outside environment. Biosecurity involves active methods to avert biological terrorism or other disease breakouts.
The conversation was a "meeting of the minds" in which policy experts heard from scientists on the effects that changes in policy have on their work, according to Finlay.
Concerns regarding certain research have grown since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax mailings that followed. Several projects in recent years have raised security concerns, including the recreation of the lethal 1918 influenza virus and an analysis of the use of botulinum toxin to taint the country's milk supply.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal panel of science and security professionals, defined "dual-use research of concern" as "research that based on current understanding can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health, safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment or materiel."
The discussion of the bioscience community, though, "was very much a waste of time," according to the international analyst.
At one point during a participant made an "innocuous" comment about the need to educate scientists about the potential dangers of their research, he said.
"Fifty percent of the room was bioscientists. They went ballistic," he told GSN. "We spent a half-hour listening to why the world should not blame bioscientists for biothreats."
He added: "Having a majority of people being bioscientists -- at one level -- makes sense, but on another level it skewed the discussion. I don't think that a similar conference devoted to the chemical-weapon threat would have had 50 percent chemists."
The meeting also highlighted existing international biodefense initiatives, according to the analyst.
Participants discussed what role the United Nations or NATO might play in stemming bioterrorism, Finlay said.
They also considered whether the U.S. State Department's Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism could be used as a model for an international biological preparedness system, the analyst said. That program is designed to "prevent the acquisition, transport, or use by terrorists of nuclear materials and radioactive substances or improvised explosive devises using such materials, as well as hostile actions against nuclear facilities." Participants also offered their opinions on the Biological Weapons Convention and its upcoming review conference, in which member states will review the operations of the pact.
The treaty, which entered into force in 1975 and today has 162 member nations, prohibits development, production, stockpiling and use of weaponized disease agents such as anthrax, smallpox or plague, as well as equipment and delivery systems intended for hostile use. The treaty has no provisions for verification or for monitoring compliance.
Talk of how the administration could approach the pact "was a one-way dialogue," according to Finlay. "It was not about information sharing. It was more 'Let's bring these individuals together so we can get a temperature reading.'"
"There was no dialogue going the other way," Finlay said.
The biological research expert said the conversation of the treaty revolved "more along the lines of universal adherence" to the rules laid out in the compact.
Besides reaffirmation of the treaty's principles, it was suggested that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or another high-ranking State Department official, attend the 2011 review conference to stress the importance of the treaty, she said.
The potential role of nongovernment entities in implementing the administration's bioterrorism strategy was particularly generalized, Finlay and the other attendees told GSN.
"At the end of the day, you get that many people in the room, it's less about coming up with innovative ideas" and more about each participant promoting their own area of expertise, another biological research expert who attended the meeting said.
Finlay said it was made clear to the participants there will be similar conferences in the future. The meeting "at the macro level, was designed to open the door for a longer discussion," he said.
Petro did not return repeated phone calls for comment. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council did not respond to questions.