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Advancing Biodefense

Biodefense Summit Transcript

Remarks by Timothy A. Morrison, Special Asst. to the President and Sr. Director for WMD and Biodefense NSC

​>> CICELY WATERS: Thank you, Mr. Brooks, and our panelists. Our next presenter provide remarks about the implementation of the strategy as well as advancing biodefense. Please welcome Mr. Timothy Morrison, special assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and biodefense at the National Security Council. Mr. Morrison. 


>> TIMOTHY MORRISON: Good afternoon, thank you for having me. I appreciate the Academy. And Bob Kadlec may be out there somewhere. I thank him for putting me on the agenda. I thought before I got into the Biodefense Strategy, one of the questions I get a lot, I spoke to a group of students from the National Defense University yesterday. And it was about 50 or 60 students from all military services all around the world that come to the United States to study how we run a military, our civil military balance. How we confront the unprecedented series of overlapping challenges at the same time. How we try to coordinate our policy.

And the question I get a lot in groups like that is, what keeps you up at night? And as the Senior Director on the National Security Council for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense the answer is, frankly everything. There's nothing that I get in my morning intel briefing that's really ever good news.

So when people ask me what am I really worried about, it's always the thing we're not thinking about. The thing we're not prepared for that we should be. And when we were working on the Biodefense Strategy, we started thinking a little bit about what would we likely confront, what's likely to come next? When I was thinking about my remarks today, I pulled a book off my shelf, "The Great Influenza." And if you would indulge me for just a minute, there were a couple of lines in here that ring true when I think about what keeps me up at night and what am I really worried about.

In 1918 an influenza virus emerged probably in the United States that would spread around the world and one of its earliest appearances in lethal form came in Philadelphia. Before that worldwide pandemic faded away in 1920 it would kill more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history. Plague in the 1300s killed a far larger proportion of the population. More than one-quarter of Europe. But in raw numbers, influenza killed more in plague then and more than AIDS today.

One cannot know with certainty but if the upper estimate of the death toll was true, as many as 8 to 10% of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.

And it continues. And as priests had done in the bubonic plague in 1918, even in Philadelphia, as modern a city as existed in the world, priests would drive down -- would drive horse-drawn wagons down the streets calling upon those behind doors shut tight in terror to bring out their dead.

So when people ask me what keeps me up at night, it's issues like that. And this morning in just the open source literature, there was an article from a newspaper. A flight attendant has reportedly been hospitalized after a person with measles boarded a flight out of New York City. Measle.

I then did a little Internet search. How many people are in the air flying at any given time? Tracking 6382 airborne aircraft with 490 million total flights in the database, 90,497 arrivals in the past 24 hours at any given moment there are at least a half a million people flying around the world in airplanes.

So when you think about the influenza pandemic of 1918 which killed roughly 55 million people, according to reasonable estimates, and this was a pandemic spread by steamship. And you think about the threat factors we have available today with roughly 500,000 people flying around the heavens at any given moment, that's what keeps me up at night.

And so as we sat down and we worked on the National Biodefense Strategy, we were informed by the influenza pandemic 101 years ago. We were involved by zika. We were involved by SARS. We were informed by ebola 2014 and of course we are neck deep in an ebola outbreak in the Congo today.

And we were informed by the lessons from the Bush 43 Administration and from the Obama Administration and there's a quote attributed by Isaac Newton that we stand on the shoulders of giants but we can see farther. And so that was very much what motivated us as we put together the National Biodefense Strategy.

We looked at biological threats as a fundamental and distinct aspect of national security. We looked at the national security strategy, which made countering biological threats a national security priority and that's why on September 18th, which was 17 years to the day of the anthrax attacks in Washington, the President signed the national security Presidential Memorandum NSPM 14 that directed the implementation of the Biodefense Strategy.

And what we did was we took the Biodefense Strategy and the NSPM to provide across the entire Executive Branch a guidance to improve and coordinate what we were already doing with respect to the multi-billion dollar biodefense enterprise. And really started in I think it was FY17 the Congress gave us some direction that said we want a Biodefense Strategy.  We want USDA we want DHS we want DoD we want HHS to come together and give us a plan for how we will deal with biodefense. And we looked at that and the President -- from the President down looked at that and said that's actually too small. When we look at everything the Federal Government does in biodefense we look across 14 or 15 departments and agencies. We look across the entire Intelligence Community. All of which -- excuse me -- all of which has Centers of Excellence, has responsibility, has capability and resource for biodefense. So the President felt it was very important to bring that altogether and go bigger than Congress was contemplating in FY17 would have gave us the direction. It was also frankly why we were late in getting it done.

Because we decided to coordinate a larger -- a really larger universe of activity.

And so what we wound up doing was creating the Biodefense Strategy that defined biodefense broadly and looked at dealing with the biodefense problem now. I'm sorry I have allergies. Naturally occurring, deliberate and accidental biological threats to encompass threats to humans, animals, plants and the environment. And actions that would occur domestically and with partners abroad, as I mentioned earlier with vectors like zika, vectors like ebola.

So we set out and gave ourselves five goals. Assess biological risks. Ensure capabilities to prevent biological incidents. Prepare to reduce the impacts of biological incidents. And respond rapidly to biological incidents and recover from biological incidents.

So for the first time we created a truly National Biodefense Strategy bringing together the totality of what the Federal Government does with respect to the biodefense enterprise.  And so what I appreciate about today is we're bringing to light the importance of this enterprise. And bringing more attention to it. Because I think frankly aside from some periodic newspaper articles as we have seen in the past couple of days on ebola, this is an outbreak in the Congo that's been with us for months and months. We have been trying to bring it under control. But with the 24-hour news cycle we wind up seeing that it's very difficult to keep attention on these issues, which is what the importance of this summit here is today.

And if you look at what the NSPM and the NBS wind up doing, we will wind up coordinating that entire biodefense enterprise. And I'm not sure. Bob, if you're here, raise your hand. He might have already left.

If you look at what we will wind up doing, the secretary of HHS will be accountable to the President for bringing together and coordinating across the Executive Branch everything that's being done with respect to biodefense. My boss, the National Security Advisor, will then take that product on an annual basis and we will wind up looking at what are -- what is the interagency? What do our departments and agencies look at as the priorities for the coming year? What are the resources that our friends at the Office of Management and Budget will give us for the coming year? And how do we rack and stack those priorities?

So for us this coming budget cycle, as we put together the FY21 President's budget request, will be an opportunity for us to figure out whether or not this new model is going to allow us to corral all of the resources and capabilities and competencies of the Government. So this summit comes at a pretty exciting time as we try to wrap our arms around this building on the lessons from the Bush 43 Administration and the Obama Administration.

But this is the beginning of a process for us. We are going to need your assistance with respect to where we get it right and where we get it wrong. I've done a number of these events on the Biodefense Strategy, the Blue Ribbon Panel. And other venues. To really bring together all of the expertise. Phyllis has talked to us a number of times.

Hi, Phyllis. To bring together all of the expertise that's available whether in the private sector, the academic sector and the Government to make sure that as we run this process that we really are able to maximize the resources that are available to us.

And for our purposes, again, I think what keeps us up at night is what we're not planning for. Mother Nature will get a vote. We are watching a resurgence of chemical and biological agents every day. The newspapers open up what new horizons science has created with respect to CRISPR technology. These are things with which we simply haven't had to deal with before. While we clearly have had experience with pandemics, we don't know and probably don't have the ethical tool set to deal with some of the technologies, which is where I would again implore you all to bring your expertise. Bring it to the National Security Council. Bring it to HHS. Bring it to Bob Kadlec. My colleague and friend Jim McDonnell will be speaking shortly. Bring it to DHS.

But what always gets us is what we're not planning for and what we're not thinking about. And so that's where I think we need your help. And I've gotten the sign about a minute ago that my time is up. But I appreciate the opportunity to speak today to talk a little bit about what the Administration is doing with the Biodefense Strategy and NSPM 14 and am I taking questions? Yeah, I'm happy to take questions if anybody has any questions for me. But otherwise, I appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit about what keeps me from sleeping at night. 


>> FEMALE SPEAKER: Do we have any questions? 


​>> TIMOTHY MORRISON: It's not a problem. It's beautiful outside. All right, well thank you again for the opportunity to be here today, to be here with you. And I appreciate the time you all are putting in to help us with these problems. Thank you.