Op-Ed: Sen. Alexander & Sen. Burr: Coronavirus prevention steps the U.S. government is taking to protect you

February 7, 2020

Americans are rightfully concerned about the coronavirus -- there are 12 confirmed cases of this new infectious disease in the United States, and the ability of the virus to rapidly spread in China, where it has infected more than 24,300 people and left 491 dead, is alarming.

In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, China has locked down 16 cities where an estimated 45 million people live. Last week, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. And the United States along with Singapore Australia, and Indonesia all took the rational step of temporarily barring foreigners who have been to China in the last two weeks from entering the country.

Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration.

The work of Congress and the administration has allowed U.S. public health officials to move swiftly and decisively in the last few weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with airport security and Customs and Border Protection officials, are screening incoming passengers at airports as they arrive in the United States from China. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is training state and local health departments on the symptoms of the coronavirus. The CDC has developed a diagnostic test that detects coronavirus infections and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is prepared to expedite its review. The White House has convened a Coronavirus Task Force, HHS has declared a public health emergency for the U.S. to help state and locals with the response efforts, and the National Institutes of Health, along with drug manufacturers, are expediting the development of a vaccine.

All of these steps are part of the response framework Congress has put in place to ensure we are prepared for disease outbreaks and other public health threats.

Following the anthrax attacks after 9/11, Congress recognized the challenge of researching and developing treatments and vaccines for biothreats that have little to no commercial market, like anthrax or Ebola. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed a law creating Project BioShield, which has been successful in acquiring medicines and vaccines and stockpiling these countermeasures to better protect Americans.

In 2006, Congress went further by passing the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA).

Just last year, President Trump signed into law updates to PAHPA, the bipartisan legislation we worked on that guides federal readiness and response policies and outlines clear leadership roles to address public health threats.

PAHPA created the position of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS so there is no question whose responsibility it is to ensure our country is ready to respond to these types of emergencies.

Through PAHPA, Congress also gave HHS additional authorities to prioritize funding for the development of vaccines for new diseases and bolster our network of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals so that they are ready to respond to any scenario. And we improved the Public Health Emergency Fund to ensure those on the frontlines have quicker access to funds they need.

One of us is Chairman of the Senate Health Committee and the other is the author of PAHPA. We have worked together with our Democratic colleagues to update the PAHPA with what we learned from previous pandemics, including the coronavirus outbreak of SARS in 2003, the H1N1 influenza virus in 2009, and the more recent outbreaks of the Ebola and Zika viruses.

No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.

The public health preparedness and response framework that Congress has put in place and that the Trump Administration is actively implementing today is helping to protect Americans. Over the years, this framework has been designed to be flexible and innovative so that we are not only ready to face the coronavirus today but new public health threats in the future.

Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the author of the Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act.