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Event Briefing: Chemical Warfare & Infectious Disease Preparedness

HSP Summer Associate, Jackson Cherner recently attended two events in Washington, D.C. relating to health security. Below are his key take-away messages from each:


June 12, 2018

U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Gov. Affairs

Roundtable Discussion – Examining the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) Program

Background: The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs recently convened for a hearing concerning the reauthorization of CFATS, or the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. The program is reauthorized every four years and is designed to reduce the risks associated with chemicals used for commercial purposes that otherwise raise dual-use concerns. The DHS implemented CFATS in 2006 to integrate inspections of chemical facilities and align different agency interests under specific security measures to prevent certain materials from falling into the wrong hands. Along the path, numerous additions were fitted into CFATS, such as initial risk assessments, also known as “top screens” in 2007 and the Protecting and Securing Chemical Facilities from Terrorist Act of 2014, which established new guidelines for personnel monitoring, reporting mechanisms, and criteria for tiering at each facility. Overall, CFATS and the DHS mission of chemical safety and the reduction of terrorism is crucial to America’s national security and the nonproliferation of chemical materials across the globe.

Key Take-Home Points: The committee asked panelists (ranging from government to corporate entities) to gauge the effectiveness of CFATS, while also pointing out any discrepancies in the program that might be worth updating during this reauthorization cycle. Panelists, such as Christopher Currie, the Director for the Homeland Security and Justice Team at GAO, wanted to fix the level of access first responders have at facilities to ensure they are properly trained to handle a potential crisis. Other panelists echoed this concern, as many facilities are in rural areas and first responders are more than likely volunteers, leaving gaps in the knowledge of certain facilities and safety standards concerning chemicals in their own backyard. Additionally, there was a great concern for the lack of cyber training provided by the DHS for inspectors. Jesse LeGros, the Vice President of Infrastructure Protection at AFGE National Local #918 and a DHS inspector, highlighted this inefficiency and noted that general inspectors tasked with assessing facilities with partial cyber capabilities are left to their own discretion and the recommendations of the facility itself to assess whether the facility can cope with cyber-attacks. Cyberterrorism and its impact on infrastructure, particularly industries involving hazardous materials such as chemical agents, was pushed as a top priority, but Chairman Ron Johnson assured the panel that cyberterrorism would be better handled under a separate program rather than compounding cyber duties with general inspections.

Chairman Johnson ultimately helped to narrow down the panel’s concerns on CFATS to a few major concerns. First, he addressed the reasons behind the lack of exemptions for explosives from CFATS under DHS, which was due to the lack of coverage of explosives by other agencies, such as ATF, who didn’t have procedures for regulating precursors and other chemicals used in explosives. Second, he addressed the complications with the lack of transparency in the tiered ranking system for chemical facilities, to which he said should be revised if it remains a problem to industry actors. Third, he noted that William Erny’s proposal for a CFATS recognition program would be beneficial, as it would provide credentials and a self-certification model for those facilities who consistently met the standards outlined by CFATS. Lastly, he addressed that despite DHS collaboration with the industry itself, CFATS could benefit from greater coordination amongst federal, state, and local organizations to prevent the duplication of regulations, which are a hassle for companies, and to ensure that there is proper training and “no fault” reporting mechanisms in place so everyone is on the same page. Overall, CFATS has been working properly according to the panel, and the industry has been pleased with DHS’s responsiveness to their concerns but requires minor tweaks in its regulation and more long-term authorizations to be more effective.

June 15, 2018

U.S. House of Representatives: Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversights and Investigations

The State of U.S. Public Health Bio Preparedness: Responding to Biological Attacks, Pandemics, and Emerging Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Background: The House Committee on Energy and Commerce convened this hearing to analyze the reauthorization of PAHPA, or Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act as well as address current issues with biopreparedness ranging from rapid identification to laboratory security. The committee has been concerned with the proliferation of outbreaks due to increased globalization, citing the recent H7N9 influenza outbreak in China and the Zika crisis in 2015, and the United States’ abilities to combat outbreaks and provide efficient countermeasures. Areas of concern for responses to pandemics and outbreaks have been the decreased funding to the LRN network, the transfer of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) to the HHS ASPR and increasing communication and training with local and state partners who will be on the front lines.

Key Take-Home Points: The committee listened to the panel give testimonies concerning the efficiency of biopreparedness and the detailed work of specific agencies, such as BARDA and ASPR. Panelists raised concerns with the lack of communication amongst local agencies, and the need to streamline services between different government agencies to improve countermeasure deployment, reporting measures, and rapid identification in all 50 states. Panelists also recommended providing advanced funding for programs to instill confidence in research and provide long-term results towards vaccine development and other goals.

Following their testimonies, the committee questioned the panel. Panelists entertained questions concerning the production of a universal vaccine for influenza, to which Dr. Fauci responded, stating the impossibility of creating a one-and-done vaccine, although vaccine development has been pushed into Phase II, in which the main influenza strands will be prioritized. Other congressmen asked about the progress of specific vaccines, such as Zika and other minor threats, to which panelists responded that Zika was in a Phase IIB stage despite low efficacy signals and reduced infection rates, and others would likely see future countermeasure development if threat levels rise again. Additionally, congressmen were interested in preventive measures for antibiotic resistance, to which Dr. Schuchat, the Principal Deputy Director from the CDC replied that the CDC has set up monitoring programs, such as the National HealthCare Safety Network, which gathers voluntary reporting from over 850 hospitals to help understand the unnecessary use of antibodies and gain insight on solutions.

Lastly, the congressmen questioned the panel on the efficiency of the LRN and its connections with local agencies, as well as how working groups prioritize the agents and assays that need to be sent for development and evaluation by their experts.

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