U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Beccera to Give Preparedness and Response its Own Division

By Dr. Dan Regan

On July 20th, an internal memo from U.S. Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell informed her staff of a plan to elevate their division within the U.S. government. Due to its new interagency status as an “operating division” this is a move that will enable her agency to quickly mobilize a response to national emergencies. 

The memo specifies that Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Beccera made the decision to transition the office from its staff designation to a separate division – newly titled the Administration of Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR). This move elevates ASPR to being an operational authority, now level with HHS counterparts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to rapidly respond to national emergencies with additional hiring and contracting capacities. 

O’Connell highlights ASPR’s existing expansion of responsibilities as part of this decision. Through the ongoing pandemic, demands rose for the office in charge of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the Medical Reserve Corps, and the National Disaster Medical System, including additional responsibilities added over the course of the pandemic with the Strategic National Stockpile. A new organization, the HHS Coordination Operations and Response Element, is the evolution of the partnership with the Department of Defense on Operation Warp Speed to bring public health experts and industry stakeholders together to acquire and distributed medical countermeasures for COVID-19 and will be permanently housed within ASPR. 

ASPR’s new elevated role would make it the lead agency for internal hiring, as well as deploying and working with the industrial base via purchasing contracts to prepare for strong responses to future infectious disease outbreaks. One of the major lessons learned at HHS during the initial COVID-19 response was that ASPR needed agile ways to surge capacity at BARDA to both develop vaccines and therapeutics and expand its logistics team for national distribution. The initial limitations led to interagency collaboration to leverage defense authorities, such as in the successes of Operation Warp Speed for coordinating vaccine development, and the creation of H-CORE to handle distribution. Yet the Biden administration’s idea to address gaps within HHS that were exposed during the early days of COVID-19 response is a welcome step. 

While the exact details of this move have yet to be published, there are several key components that we at the Nolan Center hope to see with ASPR’s elevated role. 

  • First, ASPR and the Department of Defense should continue to work together as they did in Operation Warp Speed, especially in the realm of awards for medical countermeasure developments and critical vaccine supplies. 

  • Second, ASPR should work closely with its interagency counterparts at the CDC’s new Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics on both maintaining data standards and fostering interagency communication on pathogen early warning from detection to medical countermeasure development. 

  • Finally, ASPR and BARDA should be part of a federal government transition from the list-based approach to addressing biological threats to the Disease X Medical Countermeasure Program, preparing for future biological threats of currently-unknown agents by investing in medical countermeasures of pandemic-potential pathogens. A bill was introduced by Senator Baldwin in August of 2021 but has not moved out of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. 

Now more than ever, the Administration can prioritize these recommendations into ASPR’s responsibility to address future infectious disease outbreaks as it becomes an operational agency.


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