We must invest in new labs for the CDC to prepare for future health threats

We must invest in new labs for the CDC to prepare for future health threats
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We live in a world full of dangerous health threats, from Ebola to Zika to highly pathogenic influenza. It’s not a stretch to imagine pandemics with potential to kill millions of people globally. This year’s 100th anniversary of the 1918–1919 Spanish influenza pandemic, which is estimated to have killed upwards of 50 million people, is a stark reminder of the potential consequences.

Experts tell us that it’s not a matter of if but when we face the next pandemic. Are we ready?

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While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recognized as a global leader in response to infectious diseases, the agency is currently raising an alert. They are letting our nation know that their high containment laboratories — those that are used to address the deadliest disease threats — need a major investment to remain safe and relevant. I hope our nation’s leaders are paying attention.

 

Since the CDC’s current high containment laboratories were brought online in 2005, there have been incredible lab advancements, and the previous era’s technology is rapidly being replaced.

That alone is a real concern. But what’s more alarming is that without new labs the agency has indicated it may be forced into an unplanned shutdown of its high containment lab work within just a few short years. That’s because the current lab’s critical systems, including air pressurization and door locks, will begin to show signs of failure with the potential to put scientists’ safety at risk.

CDC’s laboratory capability is absolutely essential for our nation as it develops and performs diagnostic testing for viral hemorrhagic fevers, like Ebola, and is only one of two labs worldwide working with live smallpox virus.

In addition, the CDC has the only U.S. government lab that can receive emerging flu viruses quickly from other countries so that immediate research can take place when a fast response can save lives.

So what’s at stake? One recent example emphasizes the importance of its work. During a surge in influenza A (H7N9) cases in China last year, CDC’s high containment laboratory was the only one that provided information on the transmission and lethality of the emerging flu strain to rapidly assess America’s pandemic risk.

As a country, we cannot afford to let CDC’s lab response capabilities lapse. To provide CDC the capabilities it needs to protect us, the agency has put forward plans for a new high containment continuity laboratory where the agency will be able to conduct life-saving research on a wide variety of pathogens from smallpox to Marburg virus to SARS to emerging strains of influenza.

What needs to happen? At present, Congress is looking to pass a spending bill that would fund the government through the end of fiscal 2018.

The good news is that the president recognizes the urgent need for a new high containment continuity lab and has included $350 million in his budget proposal for work on this facility. That’s a great start, but the full cost, including the lab and all the necessary infrastructure to support it, will require a total investment of $480 million.

I believe congressional budget action is critical for work on the labs to begin — the sooner the safer. We never know when the next health threat will occur, but we know that one will.

As a nation, let’s make this crucial investment in high containment continuity labs to ensure that CDC as our nation’s health protection agency has the tools it needs to protect us all.

Judith Monroe, M.D., is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation Monroe previously served as a CDC deputy director and as state health commissioner for Indiana.