Science and Technology

William N. Bryan; Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology.

Supply chains are expansive, complex, and are comprised of a multitude of interdependencies between one another that can affect our critical infrastructure, public health, and the economy. A key attribute of our public health and economic stability is the ability to identify and mitigate threats to our supply chains. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains worldwide and revealed vulnerabilities on a scale never before experienced. From shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) to delays in obtaining parts and materials, we are seeing firsthand the fragility of global supply chains. By making supply chains more resilient, we will be better positioned to recover from the current pandemic and ready to immediately respond to future disasters.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Centers of Excellence (COEs) recently designed and executed a series of invitation-only COVID-19 Supply Chain Workshops led by our Office of University Programs (OUP). The goals of these workshops: identify tools and technologies that can help address current pandemic challenges, discuss key lessons learned that will better prepare our supply chains for future disasters, and pinpoint areas in which future research investments can be made.

Over 35 experts from industry, academia, and government discussed challenges in four key areas that arose when COVID-19 hit: criminal activity during the pandemic, the pandemic’s effects on labor markets, stress on the food supply chain, and impacts to the supply chains for medicine, vaccines, and personal protective equipment. In total, 175 attendees from across the public-private ecosystem participated in the series of events.

From the workshops, we learned that:

  • Unapproved and counterfeit N95 masks, gowns, gloves, and other PPE are being sold;
  • Closing of borders presented new “threat vectors” rather than making security easier;
  • An increased reliance on social media is leading to problems relative tomisinformation;
  • The decision as to who is or is not an essential worker is affecting economic sectors throughout the supply chain;
  • There are wide exceptions to required lockdown for workers in national security, but essentially none for basic science researchers;
  • Food and agriculture issues affect many other critical infrastructures that are important for our national security and public health and safety, including critical manufacturing, financial services, energy, chemical, healthcare, and transportation systems; 
  • The need to surge retail food production and curtail food service supply systems resulted in packaging supply shortages as suppliers had difficulty responding;
  • Even when food supplies are adequate, instabilities arise from trade policies and export bans and quotas;
  • There will likely be global competition for some materials, and the country where that material is produced will have the ability to control capacity and distribution. We saw this happen with some drugs, PPEs, and other healthcare items;
  • Two of our COEs co-authored a recent study that shows that COVID-19 will reduce U.S. GDP over the next year by 11.9% ($2.5 trillion) and employment by 12.2% (19 million full-time jobs); and
  • We need to treat public health preparedness, including supply chains, as a national security issue and need to develop a strategic national supply chain approach.

This public-private initiative was successful in that we were able to engage in a way that leveraged the varied skillsets of the full network of COEs and industry. Our hope is that this will lead us down a path to additional collaborative efforts in the future—not only to tackle COVID-19 challenges but also those being experienced by DHS operational components on a continuous basis.

I encourage you to stay engaged—tune in, follow us on social media (@dhsscitech) and learn more on our website about OUP and the COE Program. You can also contact OUP directly at universityprograms@hq.dhs.gov with inquiries about our supply chain work.

For more information about S&T’s overall COVID-19 research, visit: https://www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/st-support-covid-19-response.

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