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Ebola and the most important agency America has never heard of

Today’s headlines about the growing Ebola epidemic in West Africa are a chilling reminder of how quickly Mother Nature can wreak havoc on the world. There are at least 8,500 infected and 4,000 dead, and some estimates predict 1.4 million cases by January. To put that in perspective, an equivalent rate in the U.S. would be approximately 45 million nationally, meaning more than 90,000 potentially infected in Washington, D.C. alone.  Many Americans are rightly asking what their leaders are doing to keep Ebola from reaching our shores.

The answer starts with helping the international community isolate and contain the outbreak. Thanks to critical leadership by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States has helped deliver much-needed supplies including isolation beds, specialized masks, and protective suits to countries in need. This should hopefully begin to slow the spread of Ebola.

{mosads}But this is only the first step. We clearly need preventative vaccines and therapies for the sick. The world is now looking to the most important U.S. agency most Americans have probably never heard of. In 2006, myself and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) authored bipartisan legislation to establish the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). BARDA is tasked with developing medical countermeasures to stop this outbreak and prepare, inevitably, for the next one. But for too long BARDA has been underfunded and its mission deprioritized by the Obama Administration.

BARDA has been quietly working for nearly a decade to prepare us for the nightmare scenarios no one wants to think about. It is BARDA’s job to help developers in the private sector move their discoveries from microscope to manufacturing. The agency was created in 2006 to bridge the so-called “valley of death” which occurs during late stages of the countermeasure development process.  Because there is no commercial market for these products, the federal government has partnered with the private sector to protect Americans in the event of a biological attack or outbreak. BARDA also manages the Special Reserve Fund (SRF) which is responsible for procuring these countermeasures for stockpiling.

Today we have millions of countermeasures safely stockpiled against threats like smallpox and anthrax thanks to BARDA funding. A smallpox outbreak – whether from a lab mishap, manipulation by a terrorist, or naturally occurring – would spread faster and be even deadlier than Ebola. Our nation’s capital has already been the target of an anthrax attack, and we know how deadly this agent could also be to our soldiers in the field.

Recognizing the unpredictable nature of biological threats, Congress gave BARDA an advantage almost no other federal agency has – the ability to be flexible and nimble. BARDA’s unique fast-track contracting authority allows it to quickly ramp up development of one product while also advancing dozens of other projects. This helps promising drugs move faster from clinical trials to production. BARDA currently has more than 80 active development contracts to advance medical countermeasures against threats like Ebola, smallpox, anthrax, botulism, and acute radiation syndrome.

These are products we hope we never need to use. But as recent events have shown, the threat posed by biological weapons remains real. A laptop recovered earlier this year from ISIS fighters in Syria unearthed plans for weaponizing bubonic plague and developing other biological weapons. Our intelligence agencies understand that the technical barriers to bioterrorism remain low and these weapons are now more accessible to nations and terror groups with the intent to use them. 

Unfortunately, this administration has not fully lived up to its responsibility to adequately prepare for these threats or prioritize BARDA’s critical mission. BARDA and the SRF still have not received the resources necessary to properly plan for all the biological threats (both natural and manmade) facing our country. As a result, we find ourselves trying to play catch up in the middle of the worst Ebola outbreak on record.

For years Congress has been forced to appropriate by crisis, often funding development of countermeasures after an epidemic is already underway. And to make matters worse, the administration is now asking Congress to shift funding from pandemic influenza vaccine development to pay for the response to Ebola. This “rob Peter to pay Paul” strategy is shortsighted and ultimately dangerous to our security.

Thankfully, Congress provided a $58 million emergency boost to BARDA in last month’s Continuing Resolution. But BARDA Director Dr. Robin Robinson told a Senate committee this was only a down payment on the funding needed to successfully develop, test, and procure Ebola countermeasures.

After witnessing the gaps in America’s preparedness against biological threats, it is no wonder President Obama said this last month: “We have to change our mindsets and start thinking about biological threats as the security threats they are.” The president is right – outbreaks like Ebola or weapons like anthrax are both biological threats that jeopardize America’s security. Congress and President Obama now have an opportunity in lame duck session to take advantage of the successful infrastructure we have in place and finally give BARDA and the SRF the resources needed to protect our nation.

Rogers has represented Michigan’s 8th Congressional District since 2001. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and is chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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