Explaining American Biodefense

In lectures I give on biodefense, biological warfare, and bioterrorism I always include a discussion of General George Washington’s prescient action to variolate (no vaccine existed at that time) troops facing the British Empire who might seek to use smallpox as weapon.  That was the real beginning of biodefense in this nation and through the 2 and half centuries since, it has morphed and evolved substantially.

The University of Sydney's Frank L. Smith III’s American Biodefense is a great addition to the scholarly works on biodefense. In his book, Smith develops a powerful explanatory principle that explains the seeming paradox of civilian biodefense being much more extensive than military biodefense. What Smith convincingly shows is that organizational frames of reference set the context for how the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) successfully integrated biodefense into their respective missions.

The DoD, Smith argues, is dominated by a kinetic frame of reference that is best exemplified by guns, bombs, and missiles (i.e. things that are propelled through the environment and impact a target with immediate consequences). HHS, with its constituent agencies of the NIH and the CDC, by contrast use a biomedical frame of reference.

Smith shows that once certain thought leaders such as Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg and D.A. Henderson convincingly proved in the early 1990s how biodefense and emerging infectious diseases were inextricably intertwined, it provided a path for HHS to integrate biodefense activities into their mission—especially when the threat became more imminent in the late 1990s.

Smith, with ample evidence, illustrates that DoD’s kinetic framework led to the inaccurate lumping and stereotyping of chemical and biological weapons together. Such a package deal ignores crucial differences, compromising certain preparedness activities that must be fully informed by the specific threat faced (this is not meant to criticize all-hazards preparedness activities which exploit true commonalities between varied threats). Also, because of this inherent deficiency, when biodefense became an issue for military operations it often prompted a scramble for resources such as during Operation Desert Storm.

For those interested in the field of biodefense, Smith’s book provides an important explanation for how American biodefense came to be structured the way it is and a path for optimizing it in the future. As the threats have not diminished—and are arguably higher—incorporating Smith’s ideas will be an important component of enhancing preparedness and resiliency.