Experts meet in Washington to discuss how to prevent the next deadly biological threat

Critics say not enough is being done to address the growing biological threats to the United States. (Getty/SeventyFour)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It is only a “matter of time” until the world finds itself racing to protect itself against the next pathogen.

So on Wednesday, a group of about 200 experts from government agencies, universities and private companies attended the National Biodefense Summit to talk about how to stop it.

Gathered under the angular-domed auditorium of the National Academies of Sciences, they listened intently as some of the nation’s top scientific officials laid out the terrifying, but possible, scenarios. Pandemic flu. State-sponsored or terrorist use of biological weapons. Emerging infectious diseases outbreaks.

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“It is only a matter of time, I believe, until we see the next disaster or next outbreak,” Victor Dzau, M.D., president of the National Academy of Medicine, told the crowd at the event sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. “So this is why you’re all here to provide input to this national health defense strategy.”

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The summit was organized to help address specific questions as the U.S. government seeks to build its National Biodefense Strategy, unveiled last September. An overall U.S. biodefense capabilities assessment is already underway with federal agencies expected to report back in May, said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. 

"Biologic threats of a man-made, accidental or naturally-occurring nature are real and they are growing. As the world grows more interconnected, infectious disease can spread more rapidly and easily than ever before," Azar said. “Today’s rapid technological advances have great potential to improve human health. But they also create the opportunity for new kinds threats and for small scale actors, even individuals, to make use of biological weapons."

Critics have previously called out government officials under both the Trump administration as well as the Obama administration for not doing enough to address the growing biological threats to the United States.

Azar pointed to previous public health emergencies such as the anthrax attacks, as well as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and infectious diseases like MERs, SARs and the Zika virus as the impetus behind creating a more centralized and better coordinated strategy. "These lessons of history led to the decision to place the accountability in one place," Azar said.

In several panels during the event on Wednesday, scientific and policy experts discussed how the U.S. could build better risk awareness and prevent outbreaks of naturally occurring diseases, minimize laboratory accidents and strengthen security against hostile actors. They also discussed how the U.S. would build and maintain a strong public health infrastructure and be more ready to respond quickly to limit the impacts of bio-incidents through better coordination.

RELATED: White House report touts Global Health Security Agenda's successes, even as funding cuts loom

The goal is that HHS will take away crucial information from across the public and private sector when it comes to identifying vulnerabilities, gaps in coordination and the highest priority actions it needs to take to protect against biological threats, Azar said.

“We need to know the lay of the land not just inside the government, but also outside of it. That’s why we’ve engaged stakeholders, including many of you, to begin understanding your current activities and priorities and then identifying opportunities to improve this coordination,” Azar told the experts. “We’re now at a point where the federal government is in particular need of your advice.”

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