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Get Serious About Biosecurity

Congress should push urgently needed funding to prepare America for a bioterrorist attack or pandemic flu outbreak.

Legislation now before Congress to provide $1 billion in venture capital-style funding for start-up biotechnology companies seeking vaccines or treatments for deadly diseases is a timely reminder that our government hasn’t done enough to protect us from potentially devastating bioterrorist attacks or the threat of a disastrous pandemic. Yet Congress can remedy at least a part of the problem by passing this legislation before returning to the election trail in October.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), want to provide $1 billion in funding where it’s desperately needed: At the point in the venture capital funding cycle when biotech startups need an infusion of cash to prove the efficacy of their work in clinical trials. The Bush administration’s current program to fund research to protect Americans from anthrax, smallpox, or pandemic flu under its $5.6 billion BioShield Program is considered a failure by experts precisely because it provides funding in lump sums only after startups have proven they can deliver on their science. That’s difficult to do without clinical trials.

The bill would distribute research funds on the basis of recipients’ prior performance. It would also introduce measures designed to bolster the nation’s public health infrastructure. Still, this is only one step in a long process to secure our country from bioterrorists or pandemic flu.

The federal government’s plan for responding to the twin threats of natural pandemics and biological terrorism bears a striking resemblance to the plan that was to guide the federal response to Hurricane Katrina: both assume that state and local entities have the resources and capabilities to take over primary responsibility for managing the crisis. Unfortunately, the reality is that they do not.

The bill is a step in the right direction, but major gaps remain. In its current form, the bill fails to adequately remedy major gaps in the nation’s ability to detect and contain avian flu and other so-called zoonotic diseases. It does not require federal authorities to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to guide research and development on countermeasures against the full spectrum of biological threats to maximize the security impact of taxpayer dollars. And it fails to give sufficient support to international efforts to detect and contain disease, despite the fact that diseases do not respect borders.

The Center for American Progress earlier this year brought together a distinguished group of experts from the homeland security, nonproliferation, and public health communities to discuss U.S readiness for a major biological incident and a new report, “Biosecurity: A Comprehensive Action Plan.” The report, written by Jonathan B. Tucker and Andrew J. Grotto, argues that biological weapons and natural pandemics, such as avian flu, share fundamental characteristics that the United States can leverage in order to counter both of these threats more effectively.

Since 9/11, the United States has undertaken a series of worthy efforts to strengthen biosecurity, but they do not add up to an effective biosecurity system for all Americans. The primary reason is a failure to correlate plans on paper with the capabilities needed to implement them. The report offers more than three dozen recommendations in the interrelated and mutually reinforcing areas of global nonproliferation, domestic and international public health, and scientific research and development.

Read the full report:

Read the transcript or view a video of the Center’s conference, which featured Jonathan B. Tucker, Senior Fellow, Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Andrew J. Grotto, Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress, David Heyman, Director and Senior Fellow of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Laura Segal, Director of Public Affairs at the Trust for America’s Health.

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