Future pandemic battles depend on Manhattan (Kansas)

Future pandemic battles depend on Manhattan (Kansas)
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It was just two weeks ago that federal public health officials were warning citizens that the coronavirus would soon hit the United States. Few seem to have fully appreciated that it would hit Americans like a gut punch, shutting down the U.S. if not the global economy virtually overnight.

After initial criticisms about a slow response, the White House and Congress have both dramatically ramped up the federal response. Budget priorities and federal intervention represent perhaps the most dramatic, immediate shift in how Washington governs and shapes the economy since December 1941.

In addition to the extraordinary fiscal stability measures being enacted, Washington is pushing its efforts to support medical and pharmaceutical response programs into overdrive. Further resources, in the form of unified National Guard and military medical stockpiles await deployment, but — for now — civilian programs are taking the lead.

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Many of the medical and pharma resources being called upon are actually decades-old programs, set up by the Bush Administration in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks.

One Bush-era creation was the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal government program that maintains enormous caches of medical response equipment in multiple locations across the country. Its enormous inventory of masks, respirators, and medications are being deployed to coronavirus outbreak hotspots across the country. And thanks to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE’s signing last year of the bipartisan “Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act”, annual funding for the Stockpile’s funding was just increased by 20 percent, meaning that it is ready as it has even been for a crisis like the coronavirus.

The Bush administration also created the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. BARDA, as it is commonly known, is a government agency dedicated to helping private companies develop vaccines and drugs for use in the event of emergencies like the coronavirus. Armed with an initial budget of nearly $6 billion, BARDA has had a great track record of developing drugs — more than 50 of them — for use in the event of biological and chemical attacks as well as pandemics.

Do recall, though, that making huge amounts of federal dollars available for pharma research can only do so much. It took nearly 15 years for BARDA to identify appropriate pharmaceutical candidates on which to spend its $6 billion. Trump’s enactment of last year’s Pandemic Innovation Act gave it $7 billion more to work with, meaning that there is plenty of cash on hand to dedicate to coronavirus vaccines and cures.

As good as all these investments have been, the coronavirus has revealed that the world is more vulnerable to the lightspeed transmission of zoonotic (animal to human) infections, so as Congress readies its next response package, Washington should ask itself the following question: What can it do right now to get ready for the next coronavirus?

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The answer? Invest in Manhattan.

Manhattan, Kansas, that is, which is where the government’s new, state of the art animal and plant disease research laboratory complex is being built.

Intended to replace the existing and dangerously outdated Plum Island, New York, research facility, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University should be playing an outsized role in defeating the coronavirus.

One hitch however: the NBAF’s construction isn’t finished. In fact, it’s about eight years behind schedule.

The NBAF was originally slated for opening in 2014, but thanks to various delays resulting from funding issues and political fights over the choice of Kansas as its home, it will not be fully operational until 2023.

While it is unrealistic to think that an injection of cash will get the NBAF immediately in the coronavirus fight, Washington should look hard at what it can do to get it up and running in less than three years. Indeed, it should make it a priority to do so, as resources like the NBAF will be essential in slowing future coronavirus-like outbreaks.

There is no question that the COVID-19 coronavirus is an event unlike anything America, much less the world, has ever seen. Even as we are the earliest stages of response, years if not decades of study will be conducted to determine what else could have been done to mitigate the pandemic. One certainty though is that Washington should make sure it isn’t just thinking about today’s response. So of the billions of dollars being spent to stop today’s pandemic, funds should also go to projects needed to stop tomorrow’s. Not doing so would be a mistake Americans absolutely cannot afford.

Brian Finch is a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in Washington, D.C.