Health Experts Urge More Funding for Epidemic, Bioterror Response

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By Greg Langlois

Congress should boost funding for vaccine production and establish a contingency fund to improve the nation’s ability to respond to public health threats, experts told Congress.

A “rapid response” fund for public health emergencies, dedicated funding for medical countermeasures such as flu vaccines, and continued support for other countries’ infectious disease response capability are all needed, public health representatives in government, academia, and the private sector said at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing Jan. 23.

The committee held a second hearing in as many weeks ahead of work Congress will do this year to reauthorize the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), a groundbreaking law establishing and consolidating public health programs to address threats such as pandemics and bioterrorism.

Dedicated Response Money

A rapid response fund would be a dedicated pot of money available to pay for responding to public health emergencies, similar to the disaster relief fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency accesses. A fund of up to $1 billion would be appropriate, said Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“If you base contingency funding on what we’ve spent in other infectious disease emergencies, we typically have spent $500 million to $1 billion as a country in response to H9N1 [flu virus], Ebola, Zika, sometimes much more,” Inglesby said.

Stocking Up on Vaccines, Professionals

A number of committee members noted the severity of this year’s flu season and asked how well the country is prepared to respond to an actual pandemic or another type of threat.

“While this is a particularly bad flu season, it doesn’t come close to what we’d see on a much larger-scale infectious disease emergency or a pandemic flu scenario,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “Our health care sector is already near capacity with this flu season, so we’re woefully unprepared to respond to a mass-casualty biological event.”

Pandemic vaccine stockpiles have dwindled as funding has dried up, said Brent MacGregor, senior vice president of commercial operations for flu vaccine maker Seqirus and co-chair of the Alliance for Biosecurity.Up until 2009, sufficient funding allowed a sufficient stockpile of pandemic flu vaccines to be built up, but “since then, the funding has really dropped off,” MacGregor said, and what is in stock is aging.

“There’s product that sits in the stockpile today that was manufactured quite some time ago—in some cases, seven, eight years ago—and our ability and the ability of the government to replenish the stockpile has been diminished by the lack of sustainable funding.”

PAHPA funding should also support the development and retention of a robust public health workforce, panelists said.

“They need certainty in the profession being there tomorrow,” said John J. Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health. “And that’s not been the case for the last 15 years.”

Dreyzehner said public health workers have other, more lucrative options, “but they really like these jobs.”

“I think the nation’s national security would be well-served to recognize the passion of these professionals, the experience that they’ve gained, the relationships that they’ve built, and the lives and property that they’ve saved in the last 15 years since” PAHPA was first passed, he said.

Broad Support

Infectious disease specialists also support a rapid response fund and funding for public health workforce development, as well as more funding for antibiotics, Amanda Jezek, vice president of public policy and government relations for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told Bloomberg Law in a Jan. 22 interview.

“Reauthorization with the highest possible funding levels for the programs included under PAHPA is going to be really important,” Jezek said. “This is the legislation that authorizes programs that protect all of us from natural and man-made public health threats, everything from bioterror events to pandemic influenza to the infectious disease complications of hurricanes, which we’ve become all too familiar with recently.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Langlois in Washington at glanglois@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Randy Kubetin at rkubetin@bloomberglaw.com

For More Information

A video of the hearing is at http://src.bna.com/vP5.

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