We can’t continue to respond from crisis to crisis. Since the 2014 Ebola outbreak, despite steps taken by our hospitals and others to better prepare for biological threats and public health emergencies, our nation remains largely reactionary in its response.
Our inability to mobilize quickly and effectively to identify, contain, treat and eliminate any kind of biological threat is a significant liability, especially when there are reports that the Islamic State is exploring development of chemical and biological weapons. The threats are very real, and these viruses are just as much a question of national security as they are of public health.
It’s why I’ve made strengthening our national readiness and underlying biodefense infrastructure a top priority. It is imperative that we work with our private sector partners to encourage the development of vaccines and therapies, otherwise known as medical counter-measures, for material threats like Ebola, anthrax, and the other deadly pathogens determined by the Department of Homeland Security to be national security threats.
We hope to never need these medical counter-measures; however, as the government controls the sole stockpile of vaccines and therapies for these threats, inaction is not an option.
This long-term work is critical to enhancing our national biodefense preparedness, but it doesn’t change or diminish the need for immediate action to protect Americans from the devastating birth defects and complications associated with Zika virus.
For most people, Zika virus causes mild, flu-like symptoms. However, there are significant risks to people hoping to start a family. In addition to infection by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, we now know that Zika virus can be transmitted sexually, which increases the likelihood of person-to-person infection.
Just this week, a baby in New Jersey was born with microcephaly, a birth defect producing an underdeveloped brain and a significantly smaller head. This condition has been linked to her mother’s recent Zika virus infection. This is the second child in the United States born with microcephaly that may be connected to Zika virus, and unfortunately, she is unlikely to be the last. More than 300 women in the United States and in U.S. territories are pregnant and diagnosed with Zika virus.
As summer travel season begins and weather across the country warms up, we must turn our focus to supporting mosquito control, encouraging development of widely available diagnostic tests and vaccines or treatments, and raising awareness about how Zika virus spreads.
The Obama administration has been critical of House Republicans’ response to the crisis. In reality, however, we have been taking action to respond to and help prepare for the threats that Zika virus poses since early this year.
Nearly $600 million has already been deployed to address the crisis in order to support mosquito control efforts and other preventative measures. This funding, which was originally allocated to respond to the Ebola epidemic, was immediately available for use by the administration.
In February, I joined Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) to introduce legislation incentivizing the development of a vaccine or treatment for Zika virus, at no cost to the taxpayer. Vaccines can take many years and hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars to research, develop and test, without any guarantee that the first formula will work.
Our legislation uses the Food and Drug Administration’s Tropical Disease Priority Review Voucher (PRV) program to encourage private-sector innovators to work on vaccines and treatments for emerging threats like Zika virus.
A PRV allows innovators who develop a medical counter-measure for an emerging threat to receive expedited approval for a different product in their pipeline without compromising the integrity of the product review process. A similar Senate proposal was passed by the House and signed into law in April.
In late May, the House passed legislation, led by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), that adds $622.1 million dollars to these efforts, increasing the total funding to $1.2 billion dollars to be used before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30th.
The bulk of the funding in our proposal comes from existing, unused dollars allocated to our Ebola response efforts and the Department of Health and Human Services administrative budget.
As such, our proposal supports vital response efforts at the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and does not add to the national debt. During the budget process, any additional funding that is necessary can be allocated for efforts beyond Sept. 30.
Our work doesn’t end there. The House and Senate will continue to work together to finalize a package of funding that is responsible and timely, and will help equip our country to meet the threat of Zika virus.
From Americans traveling to Central and Latin America to moms-to-be here in the United States, we must take immediate action to protect them, while also taking steps today to prepare for the next public health crisis or biological threat.
It’s time to bolster the underlying biodefense enterprise so that when the next threat presents itself, we’re ready.
Rep. Susan W. Brooks is a Republican congresswoman from Indiana, former U.S. attorney and ex-deputy mayor of Indianapolis. She is on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, working on mental health, substance abuse, biodefense and Medicaid reform.