Time to invest in our nation’s health security

As Congress debates a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the federal government for 2016, it is essential to prioritize adequate funding for preparedness to meet man-made and natural biosecurity threats.

An important recent report – the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense – highlights the need to invest in preparedness as a matter of national security. The Blue Ribbon Panel, chaired by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, highlights gaps in preparedness and urges Congress to commit to robust government funding of the programs that support public-private partnerships to develop, manufacture, and stockpile countermeasures before a threat materializes.

{mosads}As we all learned during the Ebola crisis, biological outbreaks can spread quickly and randomly, and funding for preparedness after the fact is too late. In addition, there are potential threats from those who would wish to use chemical or biological weapons.  So, while we can’t predict exactly what threats will emerge or from where, we must prepare.

The panel highlights significant underfunding of the government’s Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund (SRF) and pandemic influenza program. These are the primary programs used by the Department of Health and Human Services to procure and stockpile medical countermeasures, including medicines and vaccines. But so far the SRF has received less than half the funding Congress authorized in 2013 and pandemic influenza funding has been cut significantly. This shortfall leaves the country vulnerable to many of the biological threats we know we need to prepare for.

The report also recognizes that it can be challenging to sustain momentum and interest in preparedness in the absence of an outbreak or evidence of an imminent threat. However, the only customer for these products is the U.S. government and a true public-private collaboration offers the best chance for success. Congress can demonstrate commitment and provide a meaningful signal to the private sector by ensuring resources are available to support this critical partnership.

The Blue Ribbon Panel recommends increasing funding for the BioShield SRF to the full authorized amount and re-establishing a predictable ten year advanced appropriation. If that is not possible, Congress must at least meet the president’s request of $646 million in fiscal year 2016 instead of the current funding of $255 million. The panel also calls on Congress to prioritize and adequately fund the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority pandemic influenza program. We believe funding of $400 million in fiscal year 2016, rather than the current level of $72 million, is appropriate to address this threat.

The reality is these programs are critical components of our national security. If we fail to act now, we risk unnecessary illness and deaths here at home. The United States will inevitably face another natural or man-made biological threat. As Lieberman pointed out at an October Senate hearing about the panel’s recommendations, “we’re unprepared for the very real biological threats we face, both from terrorists and from naturally emerging contagious diseases.”

Congress needs to take concrete actions and fully fund investments in biosecurity preparedness in order to avert another crisis. The Omnibus appropriations package that is being crafted to fund the government for the next year is the best opportunity to address this historical underfunding of critical programs. In the context of a $1.1 trillion budget, fully funding these national security programs is the wisest investment our leaders can make.

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

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