Expert Reactions to the Updated U.S. Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Steps

By: The Nolan Center Team

The Biden Administration released its National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan on Tuesday, October 18, 2022, along with National Security Memorandum-15 on Countering Biological Threats, Enhancing Pandemic Preparedness, and Achieving Global Health Security. In this post we include descriptions of key elements of the strategy and implementation plan, as well as early reactions from experts at our Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons.

Key Elements

This strategy and implementation plan, like its predecessors, is meant to consolidate into a single, central document a guide directing coordinated efforts to address the “full range of activity that is carried out across the United States Government to protect the American people from biological threats.” Using the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a focal point, this strategy and implementation plan seeks to “effectively assess, prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from” the entire spectrum of biological threats across accidental, naturally occuring, and deliberate sources. 

One of the landmark shifts in this strategy is a sharpened focus on deterrence of biological weapons threats, including via international cooperation. 

The White House summary of the new strategy emphasizes that in pursuit of deterrence, the nation will “invest in pathbreaking technologies to detect and attribute biological weapons use, and work with foreign partners to prevent use and respond decisively if biological weapons are deployed,” and “work to strengthen international norms against traditional and novel biological weapons, including through efforts under the Biological Weapons Convention to foster greater transparency among all nation-states.”

National Security Memorandum-15 (NSM-15) marks perhaps an even more important strengthening of U.S. biodefense—and appears well designed to ensure the updated strategy is implemented. First, NSM-15 provides more specific instruction to U.S. agencies to increase resources for addressing biological risks, and to track and assess biodefense resources. This explicit direction is critical to driving action, as it sets processes and expectations for federal agencies to show how they are prioritizing biodefense and what explicit actions they are taking to that end.  

Second, NSM-15 requires the U.S. government to implement an annual exercise program—a step which CSR and many leading experts within government have called for in recent years. It states that within one year and then annually, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs or Assistant to the President and Homeland Security Advisor: 

“…shall chair a Principals Committee Senior Officials Exercise (SOE) on a biopreparedness health emergency in coordination with the heads of relevant agencies.  The SOE shall include a detailed summary of conclusions, which shall inform the review listed in subsection (a) of this section.  The heads of relevant agencies shall, on an annual basis, submit all related SOE After Action Reports to the APNSA and the APHSA to inform the review listed in subsection (a) of this section; the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to inform the National Exercise Program; and the heads of relevant agencies to inform biopreparedness.”

It is appropriate to hold such a valuable exercise at the Principals Committee level in order to raise awareness at the highest levels regarding any gaps that require remediation, and a positive step that this exercise program will explicitly capture lessons and feed into cycles of improvement. These steps should help in ensuring adequate resources continue to flow toward improving biodefense. 

Third, NSM-15 sends a public signal that the United States is taking catastrophic and deliberate biological threats with great seriousness, as it should. It states:

“Within 180 days of the date of this memorandum and annually thereafter, or more frequently as warranted, the Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, the Attorney General, and the heads of relevant agencies, shall provide to the APNSA and the heads of relevant agencies a threat assessment on potential actors and threats, delivery systems, and methods that could be directed against or affect the national biodefense enterprise or that could negatively affect global health security, prioritizing high consequence or potentially catastrophic biological threats.” 

We congratulate the many experts and leaders across the U.S. government who shaped the new National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan and NSM-15, which will strengthen our national and international security. Check out CSR’s Handbook for Ending Catastrophic Biological Risks for additional details on recommendations our experts have had in common with these updates to U.S. strategy. 

Below are early reactions from Nolan Center experts:

Andy Weber, Nolan Center Senior Fellow & former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs 

“The implementation plan for the updated U.S. biodefense strategy includes many key roles for the Department of Defense, which is appropriate given its centrality in addressing biological threats. Given that biodefense investments today are less than 1% of the defense budget, next steps must include increasing resources for putting these plans into action.”

Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks, Nolan Center Director, and former Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs 

“The national vision including ‘a world free from catastrophic biological incidents’ is an important upgrade in U.S. strategy, and it should be the ultimate goal of all nations.” 

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, Nolan Center Deputy Director

“Creating a separate objective to deter biological weapons finally gives this area the space and attention it deserves. While the activities that address natural, accidental, and deliberate biological threats are often complementary, it is also necessary to create specific plans to address specific threats.” 

Lillian Parr, Nolan Center Research Fellow

“By specifically mentioning climate change as a driver of naturally emerging biological threats, the Biden Administration is bringing attention to the linkages between climate and infectious disease that was lacking in the 2018 National Biosecurity Strategy. Any effective strategy for addressing biological threats must also address climate change.”

Dr. Dan Regan, Nolan Center Fellow

“Over the last four years, disinformation and misinformation surrounding public health infrastructure and the biodefense landscape have increased exponentially. The inclusion of countering disinformation is an important addition to the updated U.S. strategy, and is an encouraging sign that this unique threat will receive the attention and resources it requires.”

John Moulton, Nolan Center Senior Fellow and recently retired U.S. Navy Captain

“It is significant that the plan calls for ending the financial cycle of panic and neglect that has characterized preparing for biological threats, regardless of origin. Considering the massive scale of economic disruption associated with COVID-19, it is good and financially prudent that this plan lays out a methodology to rapidly respond and prevent future bioevents from having such an effect. One of the most important next steps will be seeing funding requests tied directly to the plan in the President’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget submission next February.”

Saskia Popescu, Nolan Center Senior Fellow

“Emphasis on annual exercises on biopreparedness health emergencies is a critical aspect to ensuring not only preparedness, but also that leaders across agencies are cognizant of the Herculean effort that is required for response. Prioritizing annual exercise programs places an emphasis on the changing nature of biological threats and awareness of the importance of sustained public health and global health security investment. COVID-19, monkeypox, and the current Ebola outbreak in Uganda have reinforced the need for exercises across multiple agencies, but also specialized response and agile framework for preparedness as each outbreak and biological threat is unique.”

For inquiries to these and other CSR experts, contact Andrew Facini at


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