A member of the Founders Advisory Board of the Journal of Health and Human Experience, Pamela Berkowsky is a former assistant chief of staff to Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and an alumnus of Princeton University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. During her tenure in the Pentagon, Pamela Berkowsky also served as the Department of Defense liaison to the National Security Council and federal, state and local agencies on domestic terrorism preparedness and homeland defense issues. As a champion of enhancements to DOD and government-wide biodefense capabilities, she studied potential biological threats to the United States and co-authored a seminal article on biodefense which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Most recently, she has been involved with a global NGO engaged in COVID-19 response efforts in the Caribbean.
In facing the novel coronavirus pandemic, health systems worldwide have seemed unprepared for such a globally catastrophic biological event. The US response to the coronavirus pandemic has raised serious concerns about gaps and vulnerabilities in our domestic public health system, which in turn, give rise to increasing concern in the national security community regarding our ability to detect and respond to potential acts of bioterrorism. Indeed, the lessons from the pandemic may only embolden terrorists and other malign actors seeking asymmetric and potentially non-attributable disruption. Our adversaries see what we see: problems with testing and contact tracing; shortfalls in hospital and laboratory capacity and stockpiles of personal protective equipment and respirators; serious leadership missteps and problems in public health communication and the coordination of the federal, state and local response. While concerns about the weaponization of “known” biological agents (anthrax, ricin, smallpox etc.) have historically garnered the most attention, technology such as DNA synthesis and gene editing now make the creation of new and more virulent pathogens more possible. Given that public health is an important part of civil defense and national security, we must continue to make the necessary investments both in our domestic public health infrastructure and biosurveillance systems as well as in the global bioweapons control regime, thereby ensuring our more effective response to future natural or manmade biological events.