Don’t let successful biodefense programs die on the appropriations vine

June 24, 2015

Cutting corners on biodefense funding will leave the nation vulnerable

by The Honorable Mike Rogers

As a member of Congress, there were a few things that regularly kept me up at night. One was a repeat of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Another was a successful biological attack. That’s why I spent a decade strengthening our intelligence agencies and passing laws to create biodefense preparedness programs.

The threat of a biological attack or outbreak remains just as real today as it did when I came to Congress. And the government’s responsibility to protect U.S. citizens from a biological attack remains. To meet this obligation, I worked in Congress to create the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) co-authored by Congressman Ann Eshoo (D-CA). BARDA’s mission is a critical one: protect U.S. citizens from a biological attack or outbreak by developing and stockpiling medical countermeasures (MCMs).

BARDA’s basic goal is to ensure that in an emergency, the nation would have a supply of safe vaccines and drugs against the most dangerous pathogens that could save lives. To stockpile these products Congress created a unique funding mechanism called the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund (SRF). BARDA uses the SRF to procure countermeasures that are in advanced development, before they have gained approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As we’ve learned during the tragic Ebola outbreak over the last eight months, the most effective way to combat an infectious disease or a biological terrorist attack is with an effective vaccine or treatment that can quickly save lives. But we also learned the government isn’t equipped to do this job alone. It has to harness the innovation of partners in the private sector.

Unlike traditional drug development, the federal government is the only market for these products, which cannot be sold to doctors, hospitals, or pharmacies. As a result, the SRF has been the sole biodefense market for the last 10 years after Congress put $5.6 billion in the fund in 2004 to procure successful MCMs. Without this demonstrated market for these products companies cannot guarantee to their investors that there will be a customer for their products or a return on their financial investment.

But the SRF expired in 2013 after the funds were successfully used to add 12 new countermeasures to the national stockpile. So I authored the law in Congress to reauthorize federal biodefense programs. The bipartisan effort in 2013 to reauthorize these programs passed the Senate unanimously and passed the House in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote.

Unfortunately, appropriations in recent years for the SRF have not followed – the fund has only received about 20 percent of the $2.8 billion Congress authorized.  My experience as the author of these biodefense programs, and as the former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has taught me that we must dedicate resources against these threats or the nation will be left vulnerable.

Funding for biodefense must be a top priority.  The Ebola epidemic clearly demonstrated that Congress should not appropriate by crisis.  We must adequately fund biodefense programs before an attack or an outbreak occurs.  This is a rare issue upon which people across the political spectrum can agree.

Next year, BARDA has planned $646 million in purchases of treatments against threats including anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and chemical weapons. Current funding plans would only cover about a third of these projects.

Funding the SRF at only a small fraction of the amount it needs would leave our nation vulnerable. Nearly $400 million of planned MCM projects will go unfunded by this action.  This drastic cut will force BARDA to pick and choose which threats we will be prepared for, and which threats we will be vulnerable against.

This is not a time to cut corners on a program we know is important and one that is actually working as intended.  The U.S. must adequately fund the SRF or it’s not performing its most important job – providing for the common defense.