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American lives are worth budgeting for with biodefense

American lives are worth budgeting for with biodefense
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There are many federal departments and agencies responsible for defending our nation against biological threats. But they are totally uncoordinated and that endangers our country and our people.

The government spends billions of taxpayer dollars every year on programs that may — or may not — work to prevent biological catastrophe. No one really knows how much we spend, or whether the multitude of efforts are effective or wasteful.

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In the meantime, biological threats grow ominously greater. North Korea is one among an increasing number of nation states and terrorist organizations reaching for the battlefield advantage that weapons containing anthrax, smallpox, plague, or a genetically engineered organism can provide. Russia and China are still in this deadly mix, as are Iran, Iraq, Syria, al Qaeda and ISIL.

When it comes to naturally occurring biological threats, we agree with Bill Gates, whose charitable foundation has provided funds to address biological outbreaks. An infectious disease pandemic could kill more people than nuclear war.

Naturally occurring pathogens have the power to destroy lives and economies. One hundred years ago in 1918, pandemic influenza took between 50 and 100 million lives around the globe. More recently, the 2002 SARS outbreak in Asia drained at least $30 billion from the global economy — a staggering $3.7 million per human case. The 2014 Ebola crisis cost the world at least $10 billion. And this year, two surprisingly harsh strains of influenza are testing the resources of hospitals across the country.

Even if we were only committed to responding after-the-fact, the government is clearly not able to react quickly enough. Congress took seven months to fund the federal response to Zika, during which time the virus spread throughout the Western Hemisphere. Congress puts millions of dollars into a livestock disaster response fund annually, which is good, but has not funded the human Public Health Emergency Fund for at least 17 years.

The two of us are focused on these problems because we chair the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which has made a number of recommendations to better defend the nation against biological threats. Responding to one of our key recommendations, the White House will produce a National Biodefense Strategy. This will be a crucial step to drive a strategic and effective biodefense enterprise.

Of course, a strategy is not enough by itself. In the report our Panel released this week, “Budget Reform for Biodefense: Integrated Budget Needed to Increase Return on Investment,” we provide a specific recommendation to align the National Biodefense Strategy with long-term budget priorities, sustained by appropriations.

We call upon the president to release the National Biodefense Strategy soon and ensure that his next budget request to Congress conforms to the priorities in this strategy, showing how money requested for biodefense programs support the National Strategy’s goals and objectives.

The White House should also establish a new, government-wide, Biodefense Coordination Council composed of senior officials from responsible departments, independent agencies, and independent institutions, as well as private sector and state, local, tribal, and territorial representatives. This Council could help identify redundancies and gaps in our biodefense before they wind up costing lives and wasting dollars.

Finally, Congress should create its own bipartisan biodefense working group to consider new legislation that would strengthen our national biodefense and hold the Executive Branch accountable for using federal funding to execute the National Biodefense Strategy responsibly.

Some of the biggest threats to the nation come from the smallest organisms on the planet. Money spent strategically now could save millions of lives and billions of dollars in the long term.

Joe Lieberman is a former senator from Connecticut. Tom Ridge served as governor of Pennsylvania and was the first Secretary of Homeland Security. They are co-chairs of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.