Critics say Congress falling short on pandemic preparedness

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Advocates are pushing Congress to provide more funding to prepare for future pandemics after preparedness money in President Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending and climate package was scaled back. 

Backers of increased funding say that after the devastating toll of COVID-19, preventing future pandemics should be a priority.

The White House initially proposed $30 billion for pandemic preparedness in Biden’s Build Back Better package. In September, it lowered its proposal to a $15 billion down payment, with the goal of spending $65 billion over seven to 10 years.

But the current package moving through Congress includes just $10 billion for pandemic preparedness. 

“We cannot afford to be unprepared for the next pandemic,” said Gabe Bankman-Fried, founder of the advocacy group Guarding Against Pandemics, who argued that Congress had “slashed” the White House’s request. 

“With full funding, we can invest in research and development to deploy vaccines, track threats as they unfold and manufacture more effective PPE,” he added.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said a lack of adequate pandemic preparedness is the “Achilles’ heel” of the Build Back Better package, which has scaled back a whole range of priorities as lawmakers try to fit a slew of programs under a shrinking top-line figure that was once $3.5 trillion and is now $1.75 trillion.

“So far, we’re dropping the ball on pandemic preparedness,” Torres said. 

The roughly $10 billion in the package includes $7 billion in broader public health funding to help state and local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with tasks like updating outdated IT systems and hiring more workers. 

Some groups say the remaining $3 billion, for areas like upgrading labs and directly working on vaccines and treatments for different types of viruses, is particularly meager. 

That $3 billion includes $1.3 billion that can go toward the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services that helps lead work on vaccines, tests and treatments. 

Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that $1.3 billion “really has shortchanged that necessary investment.”

She said a greater investment in BARDA would allow for development work on vaccines for different families of viruses so that if a new threat arose, it would take less time to bring a vaccine for that virus to market. 

Guarding Against Pandemics argues that an additional $2.5 billion for BARDA “can prepare for the next pandemic — today.”

“We’re not asking for much,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, which is working with Guarding Against Pandemics. “This is a $1.75 trillion bill.”

When the White House unveiled its $65 billion pandemic preparedness plan in September, it compared the effort to the Apollo moon missions. 

Cicero, though, said she is worried that if that funding never actually materializes, the plan will be left as just “a smart unfunded mandate.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether it views the pandemic preparedness money currently in the Build Back Better package as adequate. 

The funding currently in the bill “sort of pales in comparison as to at least what the White House thinks it needs,” said Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, though he said the money could still be “positive” if it is viewed as a “down payment.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Senate Health Committee, pointed to some additional avenues for pandemic preparedness, including the regular appropriations process and bipartisan pandemic preparedness legislation she is working on with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). 

“We need to remember that when it comes to public health and preparedness, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” she said in a statement. “I’m pushing to put that lesson into action at every opportunity I can—including prioritizing strengthening our public health and preparedness infrastructure in Build Back Better, the budget proposal I’ve put forward for next year, and the bipartisan legislation I continue to negotiate with Senator Burr.”

The health spending bill for next year released by Murray’s appropriations subcommittee would provide about $2 billion in additional funds for the CDC. 

Cicero said the “good news” in the Build Back Better package is the $7 billion for public health infrastructure, given that state and local health departments have seen decades of underfunding. 

But she said more funding is needed on the vaccines, treatments, and tests side of the equation. “You really can’t do one without the other,” she said. 

Torres, the lawmaker from New York, said part of the problem is there is not as much organized advocacy for pandemic preparedness funding as there is for other issues, saying it is not as “sexy” as issues like climate change. 

He is pushing for more funding particularly for BARDA. 

“Congress might be suffering from amnesia about the worst of COVID-19,” he said, adding: “A few billion dollars is a pitiful response to the worst pandemic in the history of the United States.” 

Tags Build Back Better Coronavirus COVID-19 Joe Biden pandemic preparedness Patty Murray Richard Burr

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