Time to fund medical countermeasures against threats like Ebola

With each passing week, the news coming out of West Africa about the ongoing Ebola epidemic offers few signs of hope.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of cases has now jumped to over 13,000, with nearly 5,000 deaths in the three countries most affected.  Many Americans are understandably asking what can be done to contain the outbreak and stem its spread. 

Members of our military as well as civilian volunteers are doing critical work providing medical care and desperately-needed medical supplies to the afflicted countries, and I applaud their heroic efforts. Just as important, we need preventative vaccines to stem the spread of, and therapies to treat those who become infected with, Ebola.  U.S. biodefense programs – in which federal agencies partner with biopharmaceutical companies to develop and stockpile vaccines and medical countermeasures against biological as well as chemical, radiological and nuclear threats – are part of the solution to this problem. Because there is no viable commercial market for such products, which typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, in 2004 Congress wisely created several programs that incentivize investment in this space, encouraging companies to become involved with developing new and more effective medical countermeasures. 

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One purpose of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is to incentivize industry to develop medical countermeasures (MCMs) which can then be stockpiled.  Through development and purchases under the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund (SRF), our government has stockpiled several different vaccines and drugs to help the nation recover from a smallpox or anthrax event, whether accidental or as part of a terrorist attack.  Because drug development is a complex and years-long process, Congress originally gave BARDA a stable source of funding for the SRF with a 10-year advance appropriation of $5.6 billion. That funding signaled to potential private sector partners that a reliable market was in place for MCMs, resulting in the development of important new vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals. 

Sadly, funding for the SRF expired in 2013, and while a reauthorization of the original bill passed last year, funding available for procurement and R&D is now subject to yearly rather than multi-year appropriations.  The reauthorization called for an advance, five-year appropriation of $2.8 billion, but appropriators only funded the program with $255 million for fiscal year 2014 – and it’s anyone’s guess what the funding amount will be next year.  This uncertainty does little to give companies the confidence that the federal government will be a reliable partner in their development programs.  We must encourage companies to expand their commitments to MCM development rather than reduce these incentives. 

President Obama’s supplemental Ebola funding request last week asked Congress to appropriate $157 million in funding for BARDA and $238 million for the National Institutes of Health to support Ebola MCM development and production. This funding is a good first step, but much more must be done if we wish to be prepared not only for Ebola, but for other future threats. 

The best way to accomplish that is with robust, stable funding of federal biodefense programs.  The bipartisan authorizers of the SRF, Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) have called for their colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to do just that by appropriating in advance its remaining authorized funds of $2.45 billion.  As the chief architects of the SRF, they understand well that the program can best fulfill its critical role only with reliable and sufficient funding. 

Investments in BARDA and the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund are a modest, yet critical, insurance policy against deadly threats.  There is no doubt that the constrained fiscal environment in which Congress operates forces tough decisions, but it is vital that we not lose sight of the importance of preparing for the worst.  The Ebola crisis demonstrates that the current funding level for biodefense is inadequate.  While biopharmaceutical companies and the government are doing everything possible to speed the development of vaccines and therapies for Ebola, the reality is that developing a new medicine often takes many years.  If we want to be prepared for the next outbreak – whatever and whenever that might be – we need to begin today with adequate funding for federal biodefense programs. 

I applaud Reps. Eshoo and Rogers for recognizing how important these preparedness programs are.  I hope their colleagues in Congress come to agree – before the next crisis hits. 

Greenwood is the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, DC. He served Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District from 1993 to 2005.