The Trump administration will develop a comprehensive strategy to address biothreats to the U.S. whether natural or man-made, the president’s senior adviser for homeland security issues said on Thursday.

The strategy development will be coordinated by Tom Bossert, assistant to the President on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, Bossert said at the Aspen Security Forum. He said the U.S. has never had a comprehensive biodefense strategy, noting that both former Presidents Bush and Obama issued presidential directives but that “we’ve had a lot of fits and starts in our investments.”

Thomas Bossert, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Photo: Atlantic Council.
Thomas Bossert, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Photo: Atlantic Council.

Bossert pointed a development last year by Canadian researchers who synthesized the horsepox virus, noting that it won’t kill anyone, but warned that synthetic smallpox could possibly be produced.

“And that scares me to death,” he said. Bossert also said that the strategy effort is driven by the “need to look clear eyed at the fact that we might have a devastating pandemic influenza or an intentional anthrax attack.”

The FY ’16 National Defense Authorization Act called for the creation of a biodefense strategy but Bossert said the congressional direction was too scattered.

“And its high-time that we have a biodefense strategy to address it and this administration is going to create one and we’re going to do a comprehensive one led out of the White House and we’ll publish it as soon as we can and we’ll tie together all the various NDAA requirements that touch on all the various departments because we felt that was disjointed,” Bossert said.

Bossert said that the administration has brought on former Navy Adm. Tim Ziemer as the senior director for the strategy effort. Ziemer earlier this year completed a 10-plus year leadership role of the President’s Malaria Initiative, which was established during the Bush administration, reporting to the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development.

J. Stephen Morrison, who is the director of the Global Health Policy Center, said earlier this year that Ziemer has been recognized as “one of the most quietly effective leaders in public health.” Bossert said the addition of Ziemer to the administration’s biodefense efforts “should be all the evidence you need that this administration takes seriously not only biodefense, but the global health security agenda that President Obama promoted.”

Bossert said that President Donald Trump favors continuing the three-year old Global Health Security Agenda promoted by Obama, even with the ups and downs in federal spending. The agenda, endorsed by the G7 countries in 2014, is set to sunset in 2018.

The U.S. has put $1 billion into the agenda and is the leading contributor, Bossert said. He said that funding is needed for “places that don’t have the money” to prevent disease outbreaks in order to “prevent loss of life here.”

“This is a problem that is global and the weakest countries among us with the least preventative care capabilities are going to be the patient zero outbreak source,” he said. “And they’re going to end up killing and infecting the world.”

Thomas Spoehr, director for the Center for National Security at The Heritage Foundation, told Defense Daily that the U.S. has had several biodefense strategies dating back to 2004. But, he said in an email response to questions, the earlier strategies have provided descriptions of the issues, and “what have lacked are tough decisions about how to organize, fund and implement our biodefense strategies.”

Spoehr, a former Lt. Gen. in the Army, had operational assignments to ensure the Army and joint forces were ready to counter chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, and he was commandant of the Army’s CBRN School.

The forthcoming strategy needs to sort to make “decisions on responsibilities, with the associated winners and losers,” Spoehr said, and it needs to set “appropriate funding levels. And then hold the implementing agencies accountable for performance.”