The U.S. is woefully underprepared for potential bioterrorist attacks or naturally occurring pandemics like the Zika virus, and the federal government must do more to partner with the private sector in order to combat those threats, U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) warned this week.
“The answers are not going to come from government alone,” Brooks said in a recent interview with Homeland Preparedness News. “There are a lot of people in the private sector who want to be more engaged, a lot of companies, and we need to make sure government is working hand in hand with them, not putting up roadblocks and impediments making it more difficult for them to participate in this important work.”
Brooks moderated a panel on bioterrorism and pandemic preparedness on Tuesday sponsored by the Alliance for Biosecurity. The alliance, an association of biopharmaceutical companies and academic partners, advocates for public-private partnerships to support medical countermeasures in order to protect public health.
A more robust partnership between the federal government and the private sector is needed now, Brooks said, because of the significant time and resources it takes to facilitate the development and stockpiling of vaccines before a crisis occurs.
“If we were to have outbreaks of some of these horrific diseases, it might be a year or a couple of years before we could have an adequate stockpile of countermeasures. This is not going to happen overnight,” Brooks said.
Brooks added that Tuesday’s panel on bioterrorism and pandemic preparedness is useful because it highlights issues that often don’t get enough attention, such as where the government is working with the private sector in the medical countermeasure area and how that could be improved upon.
“We are doing some things right, but I think we need to accelerate it; we need to put more attention on it,” Brooks said.
One of the biggest challenges the nation faces in terms of preparing for a bioterrorist attack or pandemic is that there is no single leader coordinating response efforts from various federal agencies, Brooks said. During the U.S. Ebola outbreak in 2014, not having one high-level official in place advising the president on national biodefense made the government’s initial response to the crisis more challenging, Brooks added.
“I think if we had leadership day in and day out that focused on this threat and coordinated all of the various federal agencies involved in this, I think it could be far more effective,” Brooks said.
That sentiment was echoed in a Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense report released in 2015. The bipartisan panel, co-chaired by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Gov. Tom Ridge, recommended changes to U.S. policies to strengthen its national defense against biological threats.
Brooks, who served as chairman of the House Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee in the 113th Congress, said that it is critically important that the government act on the panel’s recommendations.
Not only is the threat of a biological attack from a terrorist group a real concern that must be prepared for, Brooks said, but given the nature of global travel, tropical diseases like Zika can spread very quickly.
To date, 388 travel-associated cases of the Zika virus have been reported in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zika virus is spread to humans by mosquitoes. An infection during pregnancy is believed to be the cause of serious birth defects.
Earlier this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) signed a bill introduced by Brooks to add the Zika virus to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) list of diseases included in the Tropical Disease Priority Review Voucher Program, giving developers of Zika vaccines an incentive in the form of eligibility to receive a voucher that gives the company priority review status at the FDA for any future Zika product.