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Trump tasks HHS with ongoing review of biodefense

September 18, 2018

President Trump signed a memo Tuesday that tasks Health Secretary Alex Azar with scrutinizing and improving the entire government’s ability to respond to a potential biological attack by terrorists, the accidental release of lab pathogens or disease outbreaks such as Zika or Ebola.

“Our National Biodefense Strategy will address the full range of biological threats, including those that are naturally occurring, deliberate, and accidental a first for the United States government,” Mr. Trump said.

Senior administration officials said Mr. Trump wanted “clear lines of accountability and responsibility” in case of a rogue chemical attack or a global health scare, like the Ebola outbreak terrorizing a migratory population in Africa right now.

“It’s the first holistic look across the government to see where are we acting and where are any gaps,” said Mr. Azar, who helms the Health and Human Services Department.

Congress in 2016 mandated the White House to examine the roles of four major agencies in biodefense, yet it found responsibilities spanning 15 different agencies, and it wasn’t crystal-clear who was in charge.

HHS will spearhead an annual review of government roles and report back to the National Security Council at the White House. What they find will guide budget requests to Congress, and could change from year to year as risks evolve.

“It’s intended to be a living document that we can update and revise in light of the circumstances,” said National Security Adviser John R. Bolton.

Officials said it was apt that Mr. Trump signed the memo on the 100th anniversary of a flu epidemic that killed more than 600,000 Americans and the 17th anniversary of anthrax attacks that rocked the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The West African Ebola outbreak underscored the border-hopping threat of deadly viruses in 2014, and right now, border agents are checking 100,000 travelers per day in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an outbreak in northeastern provinces has killed nearly 100 people.

Meanwhile, former Russian spies were poisoned in England, the recent Zika outbreak introduced a new threat to newborns and the U.S. is coming off a devastating flu season that killed dozens of children.

Mr. Azar said different strands of the government need to work concert when disaster strikes.

During the anthrax attacks, when Mr. Azar worked in the Bush administration, the FBI held spores as criminal evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was called into to evaluate the substance.

“We saw the importance of coordinating across government agencies,” the secretary said.

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