Congress needs to prepare itself, the nation, for the next pandemic
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South Korea became the latest country to go on high alert status last month after a rapid outbreak and spread of the bird flu virus. With more than 50 confirmed avian flu cases in humans in less than a month, Seoul’s response has included quarantines, a temporary ban on moving, and the precautionary slaughter of more than 12 percent of the country’s poultry flock.

Meanwhile, cases of contaminated birds are being reported across Europe and Asia — from turkey farms in Hungary to foie gras duck flocks in France.

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It’s mainly poultry workers — those who come in contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces — who are currently at risk. A far graver risk to public health would occur if a strain of the avian influenza virus mutated so that it became transmittable from person to person like the seasonal flu.

 

In 2009, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic killed as many as a half-million people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including 18,000 in the United States.

It began in pigs, jumped to birds and eventually to humans, where it spread quickly around the world. Swine flu was the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century. It was also the most deadly since the Spanish flu killed between 3 and 5 percent of the world’s population in 1918.

While the current bird flu outbreak hasn’t yet shown that kind of cross-species contagion, its speedy and lethal spread among migratory bird populations did prompt infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm to comment: “This is really a wake-up call to see if modern biosecurity is working.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently co-founded the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to speed the discovery of effective vaccines that would be needed in the event of a global disease outbreak.

They’re using new breakthroughs in genetics to shorten the time — from months to weeks — that it takes to create an attack plan against a deadly new pathogen. Gates Foundation officials warn that pathogens today have “achieved unprecedented breakout potential” at a time when about 10 million people fly every day, which leaves us susceptible to a global pandemic more deadly than the Spanish flu a century ago.

Ultimately, it’s the U.S. government’s job to ensure we have a response plan equal to the threat we face. Distressingly, the U.S. government right now is investing precious little in developing essential medical countermeasures, putting Americans at risk in the event of a potential pandemic.

Here, Washington must lead. There is no natural market for so-called biodefense products. They’re used only rarely, but when they are, there’s a tsunami of demand that requires a speedy and massive scale-up by vaccine makers and biopharmaceutical companies.

The development, production and procurement of these life-saving medications is coordinated through a partnership between the federal government and the private sector. It is funded through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority’s (BARDA) pan flu program, which contracts with vaccine makers to research and manufacture pan flu countermeasures.

We should all be concerned that this once-thriving partnership is now being starved of federal support. From 2006 to 2013, there was robust federal funding totaling nearly $12 billion to implement the first two years of HHS’s Pandemic Influenza Plan and the emergency response to the H1N1 pandemic. Those funds are now exhausted.

Over the last three years, BARDA’s pan flu program has received a small fraction of that amount — $115 million in 2014 and just $72 million for each of the last two years. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated this shortfall renders us unable to “maintain the existing stockpile program critical for a swift and nimble pandemic response.”

Disease outbreaks are a question of when, not if.

Members of Congress make a potentially incalculable error by shortchanging the program Americans rely on should a pandemic reach our shores. Hypothetically, if a strain of the avian flu virus mutated so it could be passed from human to human, Congress would have to scramble to pass a supplemental appropriation to stockpile a vaccine.

Any delayed response to a potential pandemic is playing with fire. Vaccine production is a complex process that cannot be turned on and off like a spigot. Generating adequate supplies for a large-scale response takes months. Recall that it took Congress more than eight months to approve emergency funding in response to the Zika outbreak.

Congress should not wait to invest in appropriate, multi-year funding for BARDA’s biodefense programs. This includes vaccine R&D and the replenishment of national stockpiles. Crossing your fingers is not a preparedness strategy.

Given the deadliness of Ebola, Zika, and H1N1, this is not a hypothetical threat we face. Our elected officials must act to protect the security of American families before the next public health crisis is already under way.

Jim Greenwood, a former six-term member of Congress from suburban Philadelphia, is president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.