Preparing for the next biosecurity threat

Being in the business of developing countermeasures and treatments for a biological outbreak or chemical or nuclear event is a lot like the story of the boy who cried wolf. How do we, as representatives of this industry, continuously convince our fellow citizens, the government and the world that we face a potential danger and we must all prepare in the unlikely event the unthinkable happens? That is our challenge – preparing for unthinkable and unpredictable events, while at the same time collectively hoping they won’t occur. 

Unfortunately we live in a world in which the potential for a biological outbreak, natural or man-made, is ever-present. It could be a resurgence of Ebola, an intentional release of smallpox or anthrax, or the use of a chemical or nuclear weapon. As weapons technologies have become easier to acquire, and as the human population experiences naturally emerging infectious diseases at a greater rate than ever before, we can never be sure what or when the next threat will be. We must, therefore, strive to be prepared for the most likely and the most disruptive potential threats. This is true at home and equally true around the globe.  

{mosads}As demonstrated by the most recent Ebola outbreak, our ability to contain and manage a health crisis is dictated by how much time and energy we are willing to invest in preparedness both inside and outside our borders. There is simply no time to develop a drug in the midst of an emergency; it must be ready to go beforehand, or lives are lost. 

Therefore, while we are encouraged by the Administration’s commitment to support new, innovative medical countermeasures, more needs to be done – including sustained and robust government investments – to better prepare for an attack or outbreak.   

Toward that end, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced an amendment included in the final Senate Budget Resolution that endorses strengthening national security by fully funding the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund through 2025. While it is difficult during a time of tight resources to explain to constituents and colleagues the rationale for a program we hope will never be necessary, adequate funding to safeguard our security is essential. Indeed, investments made now will ultimately result in enormous savings and positive public health impacts in the event of a disease outbreak or other emergency.   

This amendment illustrates a bipartisan consensus that biodefense is a critical component of national security and should be fully funded. In the upcoming negotiations to reach consensus on a final budget, the House should accede to the Senate’s amendment and include preparedness for these threats in long-term funding proposals.  

President Obama recently met with health and national security advisors to discuss what more can be done to put an end to Ebola cases in West Africa. While the evidence is clear that our investment in fighting the disease has made the difference in handling this outbreak and has been critical to safeguarding the health and security of our country, we must finish the job. We must finish the work of developing successful vaccines and treatments. Ebola may no longer dominate the headlines, but the end objective still remains: effectively responding to and containing future such outbreaks. We must also prepare for other disease threats.  

The good news is that we have the basic structure in place. In 2004, Congress approved Project BioShield to purchase vaccines and other medical countermeasures in the event of a bioterrorist attack. While we have made significant progress toward several new countermeasures using the BioShield funds, such as the ongoing research to develop vaccines and treatments for Ebola, funding for this research must be consistent if we hope to have the tools to address all of the highest priority identified threats. Once vaccines and other countermeasures are successfully developed, they must be added to our national stockpile.  

Through our work with the Alliance for Biosecurity, we know that government investment in medical countermeasures is critically important. Public-private partnerships depend on consistent long-term funding for successful multi-year research plans. This means the government must be committed and engaged throughout the development process, encouraging companies to make their own investments necessary to protect our national interests. The U.S. government is our only customer, and a commitment from our industry to develop these needed pharmaceuticals must be matched by a long-term commitment from the government to purchase them. 

Biosecurity threats can arrive at any time and in any place. We are ready to do our part to meet these threats. In order to drive industry and capital investments, it takes a signal of firm commitment by the U.S. government that it will invest in and procure medical countermeasures to maintain preparedness. The budget allocation proposed by Burr, Casey and Alexander is admirable leadership in this direction. Let us continue this commitment. 

Chaplin, Ph.D., is co-chairman of the Alliance for Biosecurity and president & CEO of Bavarian Nordic, a biotechnology company with research operations in California and Europe. Posillico, Ph.D., is co-chairman of the Alliance for Biosecurity and president and CEO of Elusys Therapeutics, a biotechnology company based in Pine Brook, New Jersey.

Tags Bob Casey Lamar Alexander Richard Burr

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