Panel: U.S. still has biopreparedness work to do

In the nearly 14 years since the anthrax attacks, the United States has made progress on how to deal with potential bioterror threats, experts said Wednesday at the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.

As the Ebola virus continues to ravage west Africa and with evidence that the Islamic State is trying to weaponize bubonic plague, however, experts on the panel said the U.S. still has a lot of work to do.

“It’s been a long slog,” former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told members of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. The panel has met four time over the last few months and plans to send biodefense recommendations to Congress.

As a Michigan Republican in Congress for 14 years – and chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence for the last four – Rogers witnessed the evolution of biodefense on the federal level. That has included the creation of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the federal arm that manages the development and procurement of countermeasures against a number of agents and infectious diseases.

Dan Abdun-Nabi can attest to that. When his company, Emergent BioSolutions, was founded in 1998, the Department of Defense was still viewed as the necessary overseer of bioterror initiatives.

That paradigm shifted in 2001 after the anthrax attacks left five civilians dead and infected 17 others.

“What we learned is bioterror is not only a military issue,” Abdun-Nabi, who serves as Emergent’s president and CEO, said. “It affects civilians and we learned we were ill-prepared to address a large-scale bioterrorist attack on civilians in this country.”

Since then, Emergent BioSolutions has gone on to become the only Food and Drug Administration-licensed creator of an anthrax vaccine. Known as Biothrax, there are 75 million doses of the vaccine in the Strategic National Stockpile.

According to Abdun-Nabi, there have been a number of other significant strides in the biodefense sphere in the past decade, including the creation of BARDA, the allocation of funds, and the development of 10 countermeasure products and another two that can be used in case of emergency.

Still, it’s not enough, Abdun-Nabi said. He called for government incentives that would encourage the private sector to invest in countermeasure creation.

“This hasn’t answered all the questions that exist out there with respect to the viability and sustainability of the biodefense market and industry,” Abdun-Nabi said. “We are still not seeing the number of players needed in order to create the kind of countermeasures to address the whole portfolio of threats that have been identified.”

Rogers contends that part of the problem is a lack of full funding for these programs from the government, an issue that started with the George W. Bush administration and has continued with the Obama administration.

Jude Plessas of the U.S. Postal Service illustrated that point well. He described the creation of the Postal Model program, which would allow volunteer postal carriers to deliver oral antibiotics to people in metropolitan areas in the event of a catastrophic event. First conceived in 2003, it was created through an executive order from President Obama in 2009. The program was deployed in five metro areas: San Diego, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., and Louisville, Ky.

The programs drew hundreds of volunteers from the Postal Service and successfully deployed exercises, including a full-scale one in Minneapolis-St. Paul. But last year, the Department of Homeland Security said it would not provide the financial support to replace the medical kits for the five cities. In response, the Postal Service suspended the program last October, Plessas said.

Plessas said it would take some “political push” for the program to begin again, though he declined to specify what that meant.

Donna Shalala, panel member and former HHS secretary under President Clinton, noted that she would have preferred the idea of drug distributors handing out antibiotics, since they had the infrastructure to track what had been doled out.

“But as an overall strategy, you use everything you can,” Shalala said.