U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) this week maintained her laser focus on improving the preparedness of the United States to respond to a pandemic or chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats via formation of the new bipartisan Congressional Biodefense Caucus.
Rep. Brooks and U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) will serve as co-chairs of the caucus, which launched during a Feb. 26 reception held in Washington, D.C., that included more than 50 attendees from Congress and the biodefense industry.
“I am really pleased that Rep. Eshoo agreed to work on forming this caucus, which we’ve done in large part to raise the level of awareness and educate congressional staff and members of Congress on the importance of the biological threat to our country,” Brooks told Homeland Preparedness News during an interview March 1.
“We want to really be that educator about being prepared; it’s all about preparedness,” she said.
Regrettably, the U.S. isn’t as prepared as it should be to handle bioattacks or a nationwide disease outbreak, according to numerous sources, including Brooks, who noted that the country remains vulnerable to naturally occurring epidemics and pandemics that pose risks to both national security and public health. She said America continues to have a reactionary response.
“The majority of the public, I think, and many members of Congress take for granted that we are prepared, and most people would assume we are prepared if we were to have a weaponized attack,” said Rep. Brooks. “But this is the type of threat we don’t talk about very much.”
And the threat is real and growing. Outbreaks of Ebola and Zika, for instance, have created increasing awareness around naturally occurring pandemics and the need for improved public health preparedness, Brooks said. Although the medical community did an adequate job containing the most recent outbreaks of those viruses, she said, there was a simultaneous surge in requests for proper medical supplies that tested the nation’s systems and raised huge concerns about there not being sufficient amounts of supplies, such as gowns, surgical gloves, masks, etc. — items that the public may take for granted.
But now people realize that a strong, stable supply chain must be in place to respond better than adequately to a horrible incident like a pandemic or biological attack, said Brooks.
“The other thing that is critically important for people to understand is the length of time that it takes for not only the research and development of vaccines, but for the manufacture of vaccines, and for stockpiling vaccines,” said Brooks, who pointed out that the nation’s Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) must remain formidable.
The SNS is the nation’s supply of vaccines, medicine and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency. Brooks said the federal government must continue to build upon investments that maintain effective public-private partnerships, which are critical to vaccine development.
The congresswoman also supports a proposal by the president that would put the country “in a better position to respond with the appropriate supplies and resources to adequately protect the homeland and everyone who lives in it.”
Specifically, President Donald Trump wants to shift the SNS from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).
The proposed transfer would consolidate strategic decision-making around the development and procurement of medical countermeasures and streamline leadership to enable nimble responses to public health emergencies, according to the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Proposal, which also would prioritize funding for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, BioShield, and pandemic influenza, “to continue to build on investments to protect the civilian population in the event of public health emergencies related to infectious disease outbreaks, and other man-made crises.”
Rep. Brooks also supports a recommendation released earlier this week by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense that Congress should establish a public health emergency fund.
“I do believe … what has been a challenge for the country and for Congress after we’ve had these incidents with Ebola and zika is to pass supplemental bills to fund research and development and additional funds,” she said.
With the Sept. 30 deadline looming for reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), Brooks thinks it’s a good time to have a designated emergency account that’s both “a well-funded, multi-year fund rather than forcing Congress into emergency supplemental funding situations; that’s not effective governing. It’s wiser for preparedness to have that type of fund already in place,” she said.
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense suggested in its just-released bipartisan report, Budget Reform for Biodefense: Integrated Budget Needed to Increase Return on Investment, that such a public emergency fund be authorized for at least $2 billion, an amount that could be replenished when needed. Brooks isn’t quite sure yet about the amount.
“I won’t comment on the amount recommended by the Blue Ribbon panel because I haven’t researched that yet, but I agree with the concept of creating an emergency fund,” she told Homeland Preparedness News.
“New and emerging diseases someday will unfortunately affect our country. It is very difficult for Congress to help the medical and scientific communities prevent and prepare for these events that will inevitably come. I hope to work closely with appropriators on biodefense because this isn’t just a [House] Energy and Commerce issue,” Brooks said. “We have to talk about handling funding differently in PAHPA, too.”
These and myriad related issues will be taken up by the Congressional Biodefense Caucus as it works in an informal capacity to strengthen the nation’s biodefense enterprise and national security against CBRN threats and pandemic outbreaks, according to its mission statement.
The caucus will hold regular briefings focused on the roles that the federal and local governments, private sector partners and the public have in equipping the nation for an emergency and identifying ways to improve the country’s preparedness and response capabilities.
The Congressional Biodefense Caucus currently has 27 members, according to Brooks, who said she plans to send out another Dear Colleague letter inviting more participants.