America’s biodefense efforts began in 1777 when General George Washington, horrified at the prospect of losing a significant percentage of his troops to smallpox, ordered the Continental Army to be inoculated against the disease through a practice known as variolation.
Washington, not surprisingly, was on to something. Biological threats have evolved dramatically since the 18th century as has our understanding of these threats and how to respond to them.
“Biology is the science of the 21st century; it’s going to revolutionize everything,” Robert Kadlec said in advance of his Tuesday night lecture entitled “Preventing Pandemics and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future” at George Mason University’s Founders Hall Auditorium in Arlington, Va.
Kadlec is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the guest of honor for the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the biodefense program at Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government. About 130 guests attended the event that was hosted by the Biodefense Graduate Program and the Schar School Alumni Chapter. The biodefense programs include a PhD in Biodefense, a Master’s in Biodefense, and a Graduate Certificate in Biodefense.
Kadlec's hour-long examination of the history and future of biodefense and homeland security drew upon his three decades of service at the Pentagon, in the White House, and on Capitol Hill. He concluded his lecture with a discussion of the new National Biodefense Strategy and challenges currently facing U.S. biodefense policy.
Pointing out that the country has a $7 billion stockpile of biodefense vaccines and other drugs, Kadlec indicated that developing modern defenses against biological threats was more than just the government's responsibility.
“This not a government problem, but a public-private partnership” that requires cooperation on an epic scale, he said.
Before the program, Kadlec agreed that biodefense and biosecurity are a growth industry and that programs such as the Schar School’s were vital.
“Biology makes our world a better, safer place, but it could also end the world,” he said. “The key is understanding the opportunities, risks, and considerations for what we need to do in security.”
For students in the field, “the bio-economy is an extraordinary opportunity,” he said. “What Greg Koblentz [director of the Schar School biodefense program] has done is an incredible effort. I understand he has 300 graduates, 60-plus students this year—that’s a testimony not only to Greg and his counterparts on the faculty but also to the interest and recognition of how important a topic this is.”