Homeland Security

Government must invest now to protect against biological threats

Ebola, UN, WHO
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When I was in Congress, some of my most important votes were to create medical countermeasure programs that support our nation’s ability to prepare for and respond to biological and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats that pose national security concerns. Unfortunately, I am concerned that Congress has backed away from these commitments in recent years, leaving us unprepared.

{mosads}In 2004, I voted — with a landmark bipartisan majority that included 421 members of Congress — to pass the Project BioShield Act and provide appropriations for BioShield’s Special Reserve Fund (SRF). In the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, we established this fund to provide the U.S. government with necessary resources to purchase medical countermeasures (MCMs) that can be used to protect Americans from the next chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) attack. In 2014, I voted — again with a significant majority of my former colleagues — to reauthorize the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act, which expanded our preparedness focus to include emerging infectious diseases like the Ebola and Zika viruses. I also voted for emergency supplemental funding to support preparedness for pandemic influenza throughout my career.

This legislation represents a significant bipartisan commitment to protecting our nation from the health, security and economic impacts posed by CBRN threats, emerging infectious diseases and pandemic influenza. According to President Obama’s “National Strategy on Countering Biological Threats,” “[t]he effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent within an unprotected population could place at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The economic cost could exceed $1 trillion for each such incident.”

If sustained, the Special Reserve Fund and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority’s (BARDA) pandemic influenza preparedness program are critical elements of protecting our nation from biosecurity threats, because they have incentivized partnerships with the private sector, built critical infrastructure and created a viable market for MCMs that would otherwise have no market. The MCMs these companies develop and provide to the U.S. government are a cornerstone of our preparedness.

Despite the importance of these programs to national security, recent funding cuts have compromised biosecurity initiatives. The multiyear funding for the SRF expired in 2013 and the president’s budget for fiscal year 2017 cuts $160 million from the SRF. Pandemic influenza preparedness has also been woefully underfunded, and is only one-tenth of what it was. These funding reductions translate to reductions in readiness, and the consequences can be severe.

Medical countermeasure development takes substantial time and money. It can take up to 12 years to develop a new drug or vaccine, with costs that could well exceed $1 billion. And the government is generally the only buyer for these products, so without sustained, robust government investment now to develop and stockpile needed medicines, our nation will flounder in the face of an outbreak or epidemic caused by terrorists or Mother Nature.

The Senate, through the Medical Countermeasure Innovation Act of 2015, and the House, through H.R. 3299, the Strengthening Public Health Emergency Response Act of 2015, can support federal agencies and private-sector partners in their efforts to keep national stockpiles equipped for emergencies. Both of these bills are currently under consideration, and represent important opportunities for bipartisan action.

The Ebola and Zika crises are prominent reminders of the cost that infectious diseases continue to create, particularly when preventative and curative treatments are not readily available. Meanwhile, bioterrorism and WMDs threaten national security. Last month, CIA Director John Brennan said the CIA believes that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has access to chemical artillery and the ability to manufacture chlorine and mustard gas. The Department of Homeland Security has identified 13 different chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, which we have limited MCMs to address.

Biosecurity threats are constant and real. Waiting until the aftermath of a bioterrorism attack or epidemic to search for medical countermeasures is not acceptable. The government needs to be proactive in investing in drug research, development and stockpiling efforts and ensuring that we have critical infrastructure ready in the event of a crisis. This is our insurance policy for chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological threats, and will enable our nation to react quickly to future emergencies. It is the only effective prescription.

Gingrey, M.D., is a senior adviser at the District Policy Group, a boutique policy and lobbying practice within Drinker Biddle & Reath. Dr. Gingrey is a former U.S. congressman who served Georgia’s 11th Congressional District from 2003 to 2015. The views expressed are the author’s own and are not an endorsement of the legislation mentioned.

Tags Bioterrorism CBRN chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear Ebola virus Infectious disease MCMs medical countermeasures Pandemic Terror Terrorism Zika virus

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