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Lobbyists mobilize on Ebola virus

Lobbyists mobilize on Ebola virus
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The Ebola lobby is spreading in Washington.

About a dozen corporations and nonprofits now say they’re lobbying on the disease, with many focused on steps the government could take to stop the outbreak in West Africa and protect the United States.

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While most of the Ebola lobbying is concentrated in the healthcare industry, including companies that have treatments or vaccines in development, other groups are making their voices heard.

The advocacy offshoot of the ONE Campaign, a non-profit that works to eliminate poverty and disease, has been meeting with lawmakers on ways to support the training of nurses and first responders in West African countries hit hardest by Ebola, said Tom Hart, the group’s U.S. executive director.

“There’s a huge gap between what’s needed and what’s there in terms of healthcare workers and infrastructure,” Hart said.

Liberia, which has seen more than 2,400 Ebola deaths, has a population of 3.5 million and only 50 doctors — one for every 900,000 people. Doctors and healthcare workers are pouring into the country from around the world, but care centers remain overwhelmed.

Many doctors and nurses in the Ebola-stricken country have become ill with the virus, or quit out of fear they will be infected next, according to news reports. Sierra Leone and Guinea are also struggling to fight the disease.

The outbreak began in March and has since killed more than 4,500 people — mostly within the three West African countries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There is no known cure for the disease, which kills more than half of the people that it infects.

That has put pharmaceutical companies into overdrive as they work to develop a vaccine or cure.

Five drugmakers or medical device companies have mentioned Ebola on lobbying disclosure forms, though most provided few details about their advocacy. 

Some of the companies appear to be arguing for a boost in public health funding. Others could be seeking to raise awareness of their products among policymakers.

Zimek, a company that makes a disinfecting mister, hired a lobbying team at Dentons US to hold “discussions regarding preventing the spread of Ebola and other infectious diseases using Zimek’s infection control and biohazard remediation misting technology.”

Meanwhile, Hemispherx Biopharma, which is developing a drug to help treat Ebola, announced on Monday that it has a “strategic partnership” with the law and lobby giant Squire Patton Boggs.

There are also players with established lobbyists who reported working on Ebola in recent months.

BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, which has contracts with Bay Bridge Strategies and a subcontract with Peck Madigan Jones, is developing an anti-viral medication to treat hemorrhagic viruses such as Ebola and Marburg. 

The company already has won millions of dollars in federal money from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to “accelerate the development of BCX4430 as a treatment for hemorrhagic fever viruses,” BioCryst said in a September announcement.

The boutique lobby shop Tarplin, Downs & Young is representing Sarepta Therapeutics, which has an experimental Ebola drug that has fared well in preliminary lab tests. The Pentagon gave the company $200 million to fund the development of the drug, and others manufactured by the company, but the program fell victim to Defense Department cuts in 2012, according to Bloomberg.

“We have been communicating to all of the government agencies, the World Health Organization. ... We’ve had people at the table at every substantive discussion around how to manage this Ebola outbreak and have educated everybody who’s interested in learning about our technology and the drug we have available,” Sarepta’s CEO, Chris Garabedian, said on CNBC after a Liberian man in Dallas tested positive for the disease last month.

“Everybody knows we’re here. They know the drug we have, and we’re waiting for that call.”

In addition, the medical diagnostic equipment manufacturer Welch Allyn, with the backing of Akin Gump lobbyists, reported lobbying on “Ebola funding.”

The U.S. has committed $1 billion to a global fund to fight Ebola in West Africa.

However, budgets for the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been trimmed in recent years, which critics argue has helped to exacerbate the Ebola crisis and made it more difficult to get under control.

In 2010, the CDC’s budget totaled $6.5 billion, falling to $5.8 billion during fiscal 2014. Meanwhile, the NIH spent $30.6 during the same period, almost $1 billion less than its peak in 2010.

Congressional Republicans say the agencies have more than enough money, pointing to a major increase in funds over the last two decades. In 2010, the NIH’s budget stood at only $17 billion.

Public health advocates would like to see the NIH receive about $34 billion in its annual budget.

“You don’t dismantle the fire department because you don’t have a fire there in 10 years,” said Karen Goraleski, the executive director of American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. “That’s what has happened in a continued reduction in funds for tropical disease research funding.”

The trade group listed lobbying on Ebola-related issues through the firm Drinker Biddle & Reath. 

Goraleski said she’s also troubled by the government-wide cuts in travel spending. Her group’s conference on tropical medicine — which covers dengue fever, cholera, typhoid, malaria and Ebola — used to attract more than 200 CDC officials. Last year, she said, only 25 showed up.

“It’s concerning that the top U.S. federal agencies involved in these types of infectious diseases — as many as there need to be — are not able to attend,” Goraleski said.