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Inside the Biological Countermeasures Unit - Interview with a special agent takes you inside the Biological Countermeasures Unit

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Inside the Biological Countermeasures Unit - Interview with a special agent takes you inside the Biological Countermeasures Unit

Post  Gary Dee on Sat 14 Jul - 8:29

In 2006, to counter the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the FBI established the WMD Directorate. The directorate combines law enforcement investigative authorities, intelligence analysis capabilities, and technical subject matter expertise in a coordinated approach to deal with incidents involving nuclear, radiological, biological, or chemical weapons. The organization places substantial emphasis on preventing such incidents.

FBI.gov recently spoke with Special Agent Edward You in the directorate’s Biological Countermeasures Unit (BCU).

Q: What is your unit’s primary mission?

Mr. You: Just like our partner units who also work in countermeasures dealing with chemicals, radiological and nuclear material and infrastructure protection, our goal is to prevent acts of terrorism. In our case, that means bio-terrorism. But we must do that in a way that strikes a balance between security and supporting advances in scientific research and protecting public safety. Bio-security, from our standpoint, is preventing the illicit acquisition or misuse of the technologies, practices, and materials associated with biological sciences. We are also charged with protecting scientists and the institutions where they work.

Q: What are the primary biological WMD risks?

Mr. You: Laboratory techniques for biological materials are publicly available in scientific journals and elsewhere, which represent a ready source of knowledge for creating and manipulating these materials. Biological agents such as viruses, bacteria, and toxins are also widely available and used in companies, universities, and other institutions. These include materials that could have devastating effects on the public if released, such as avian influenza or Bacillus anthracis spores (anthrax). These things are also naturally occurring in the environment. Both the methods and the materials are critical for scientific research and the development of beneficial products. But we also recognize that the materials could be exploited or subverted for terrorist or criminal acts. We conduct outreach to try to make people aware of these risks.

Q: How important are partnerships between law enforcement and the medical and scientific community?

Mr. You: They are essential. We have a joint criminal-epidemiological investigation model, which is how law enforcement works together with public health entities to quickly assess an unusual disease outbreak to determine if it is naturally occurring or was started intentionally. The partnership is critical to ensure rapid sharing of information to guide the appropriate investigative steps and responses. All these efforts address the shared goal of protecting public health and safety—again, without hindering scientific progress.

Q: What is your primary means of conducting outreach?

Mr. You: We provide opportunities for the scientific community to meet directly with our law enforcement representatives—our WMD coordinators. These are the FBI’s subject matter experts, local points of contact, and really the keystone of the entire program. Each of our 56 field offices nationwide has at least one of these special agent coordinators trained in the various WMD modalities. They are the focal point for state and local law enforcement and public health officials. Coordinators conduct outreach and liaison development with academia, institutions, industry contacts, and other organizations. Our unit at FBI Headquarters manages the outreach program at the national level. We facilitate meetings between our coordinators and members of the biological sciences community, provide a mutual understanding of bio-security from a law enforcement perspective, and foster partnerships nationwide. We are also branching out internationally, with WMD personnel in Eastern Europe, Singapore, and at Interpol in France.

Q: What other responsibilities do WMD coordinators have?

Mr. You: At the local level, WMD coordinators act as resources for our partners, and they also engage in threat assessments and investigations. Coordinators are dedicated professionals who have their own career path within the FBI, and they go through an extensive training and certification program. With regard to training, we have partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide training locally, regionally, and internationally. We are able to educate the scientific community about threats and provide situational awareness about security issues that may not have been considered. In turn, the scientific community advises law enforcement about the current state of the field and assists us in identifying over-the-horizon risks. The life sciences field is advancing so rapidly that it is difficult to stay current. We rely on the expertise of our business and academic partners to ensure that our agency is addressing issues appropriately and effectively. Synthetic biology is a case in point.

Q: What is synthetic biology?

Mr. You: It is the application of engineering and computer science principles to the life sciences. It is an evolutionary step in techniques in DNA sequencing and synthesis that are used to modify naturally occurring organisms, such as yeast and bacteria, and “reprogram” them to impart novel functions not normally found in nature. For example, synthetic biology allows you to program bacteria to efficiently produce bio-diesel fuel, medicines, and building materials.

Q: Why is synthetic biology important in terms of WMD?

Mr. You: Consider a company that produces synthetic DNA. They have the ability to generate the necessary genetic information to potentially produce bacteria and viruses, even high-consequence biological agents—such as Ebola or Bacillus anthracis (anthrax)—that are regulated by the U.S. government. Companies have adopted screening measures to prevent uncertified individuals from purchasing genetic information for these high-consequence agents. Through our outreach efforts and subsequent federal guidance, companies now know to contact our WMD coordinators when they encounter suspicious orders. The FBI can conduct further assessments, provide information back to the companies, and initiate investigations if warranted. As a result, industry was very happy to have a vehicle for reporting and vetting suspicious activity. We really filled a need with this program, and it has been very successful.

Q: How will you continue to be successful going forward?

Mr. You: We will continue working with industry and the scientific community. Because we provide a service and act as a resource for our partners, our outreach has grown at a rapid pace—we can’t keep up with demand in terms of speaking engagements we are invited to or contributions to biosecurity policymaking. When we started our outreach program five years ago, we were out knocking on doors in the scientific community, trying to spread our message. Now they are inviting us in. They obviously they see the value of what we’re doing to protect the public and the scientific process.

Learn More: FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/wmd


Gary Dee
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