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Friday, December 9th, 2022

Congress eyes new international biothreat organization

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Members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed support for a proposed initiative that would create an international organization aimed at detecting and preventing new biological threats, either unintentionally developed or intentionally introduced by rogue actors, like terrorists or outlaw states.

“As the current pandemic shows, we must not wait for a devastating crisis to occur to invest” in adequate early detection resources, U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) said during a Wednesday hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation.

Several experts called on massive U.S. investment in early detection of new and emerging biothreats, saying the United States was unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need these systems to produce robust data that can be used for rapidly characterizing pathogens and tailoring diagnostics and countermeasures – vaccines and medical treatments – to help stop them. And we need increasingly fine-tuned plans for putting these capacities to use, quickly and effectively, against every emerging pathogen that raises concerns that it could devastate the nation and the world,” said Andy Weber, senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, who recommended Congress adopt a plan of “10 plus 10 over 10.” That would mean investments of $10 billion per year for 10 years for deterring and addressing biological weapons threats, plus $10 billion per year for 10 years for global health security and direct pandemic prevention initiatives.

“While this may sound like a huge sum, it is far more affordable than insufficient action,” said Weber. “The COVID-19 pandemic alone cost an estimated $16 trillion to the United States in under two years, in addition to the human toll and detriments to national security which are not well quantified. U.S. department leaders have had a difficult time even calculating the costs to U.S. national security. The 10 plus 10 over 10 plan also represents a small fraction of U.S. government and defense department spending overall. Weber said the nation’s efforts at early detection and combatting deadly pathogens was severally hindered by budget cuts at the Department of Defense in recent years, “even during the pandemic.”

“It is going to take the political will to set a bold strategy for the U.S. and its allies across the world,” Weber asserted.

There was much finger pointing going on at the hearing. Democrats were calling on their Republican colleagues to help combat misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) called on Republicans who appear on Fox News and other conservative media to “step up” against vaccine misinformation.

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said progress against COVID-19 has been severally hampered by vaccine hesitancy. “Vaccine hesitancy is a major threat,” said Adalja. “This self-inflicted wound is going to make us think about how to make ourselves more resilient, even when we have the tools.”

Republicans on the panel took aim at China and its role in the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) said China partly hid the disease from the world, inhibiting protection and the development of a cure for the deadly disease. “The world needs to be better equipped to detect and prevent emerging diseases in their early stages,” said Chabot.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) said China needs to be held accountable for the development and spread of COVID-19 and said she has introduced legislation that would require China to compensate the United States for the damage the virus has caused in America. The Compensation for Americans Act of 2021, H.R. 3882, according to Wagner, would allow the president to freeze Chinese assets in the United States to force China to pay compensation.

Chabot insisted the American public was misled by China and the media that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a laboratory leak and he asked Kevin Esvelt, director of the Sculpting Evolution Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was appearing with the panel of experts, whether this was probable. Esvelt told Chabot that it was possible and that hundreds of lab leaks of pathogens occur across the world every year. He said one such leak in a lab in China led to the transmission of the deadly SARS-1 virus.

Chabot also worried that terrorists and other nonstate actors are working to gain access to an array of bioweapons. “It is likely that new technologies will be weaponized by terrorist groups,” he said. “It’s clear that we need to rebalance our priorities to better prepare for such threats.”

Much of the conversation focused on a Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) proposal to develop new multilateral organizations to detect and combat biothreats.

“To offer meaningful protection against global biological risks, the world needs a layered defense, comprised of effective measures for prevention, detection, and response,” said Jaime Yassif, senior fellow for Global Biological Policy and Programs at NTI. She cited three main priorities for NTI: preventing the deliberate abuse or accidental misuse of bioscience and biotechnology by strengthening international biosecurity norms and developing innovative initiatives; developing a new joint assessment mechanism to strengthen United Nations system capabilities to investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin; and advocating for establishing a financing mechanism to fund biosecurity and pandemic preparedness capacity building in countries around the world.

“The issue of financing is absolutely critical,” Yassif told the lawmakers. “I’m hoping Congress can advance this initiative.” She said the global response to the COVID-19 crisis has been inadequate and insisted a worldwide project cannot and should not be undertaken by the United States alone. U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) said any such initiative should incentivize transparency and data-sharing among nations.

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) said she introduced a bill that would identify essential drugs and ingredients for treatments in order for the United States to stockpile them in case of an emergency. Her bill, the Prepare Act of 2021, H.R. 5388, has bipartisan support, Spanberger said.

“The more prepared we are, the better off we are,” added Adalja. Weber said such a stockpile has worked as a deterrence for potential use of smallpox as a terrorist threat.