CDC Again Fails to Answer Critical Questions on Status of Biosurveillance Capabilities

In today’s Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) questioned U.S. public health officials on the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to COVID-19.

During the hearing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield was unable to answer whether the CDC has filled any of the 30 staff positions Congress created to develop U.S. biosurveillance strategy and capabilities, despite Senator Burr’s efforts to raise this issue for the second time to the CDC.

Biosurveillance leverages data and information-sharing to better monitor, detect, identify, and respond to potential public health threats, like COVID-19. In June 2019, Congress renewed the Pandemic and All-Hazard Preparedness Act (PAHPA), a law Senator Burr originally authored in 2005, and included new tools to expand the CDC’s biosurveillance capabilities. The law allowed the CDC to hire 30 new biosurveillance specialists, improve coordination between the public and private sectors, and report on the state of federal threat detection efforts.

At a Senate HELP Committee hearing in early March, however, CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat was unable to answer Senator Burr’s questions about the status of the CDC’s biosurveillance capabilities. Noting that PAHPA devotes millions of dollars each year to state surveillance efforts, yet public health officials were caught off-guard by an early coronavirus cluster in Washington State, Senator Burr stated at the time, “I’m only looking at it, ‘Were we better prepared for this happening?’ and it doesn’t seem that we were.”

The CDC later confirmed that the agency had hired no new biosurveillance specialists to date.

When asked today whether that remained the case, Director Redfield still could not readily answer whether any progress had been made by the CDC in the last two months, despite the current pandemic.

 Burr HELP Hearing on COVID19 Biosurveillance

WATCH: Sen. Burr again asks CDC Director Robert Redfield for a status update on how CDC is using appropriated funds for its biosurveillance capabilities. 


Senator Burr:  Dr. Redfield, in June of last year we reauthorized the Pandemic and All Hazards legislation, which authorized at that time 30 new billets, 30 new employees, at CDC specifically in surveillance. Now, I asked Dr. Schuchat in March how many of those 30 had been filled. She said zero. As of mid-April, zero of those 30 billets had been filled. How many of those 30 employees that this committee authorized CDC to bring on for bio-surveillance have been filled today?

Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC: Sir, again, thank you for the question. I know our staffs have been in discussion since Dr. Schuchat’s testimony and I know we’re in the process of continuing to try to figure out how to move that forward, sir. If I can get back to you on it as I discuss what progress has been made since we had that discussion, post her hearing with you when you brought that to light.

Senator Burr:  Well, I brought that to light the first of March and now we’re in mid-May. So, I’m hopeful that we won’t just talk about surveillance. We’ll actually execute it and we’ll focus the unbelievable amounts of money that we’ve provided for you, that they will show some benefit to the American people.

To watch Senator Burr’s complete line of questioning, click here. Today’s full Senate HELP Committee hearing can be found here.