Op-Ed: On Zika, the Administration Should Use the Tools We Gave Them

By U.S. Senator Richard Burr and Rear Admiral Craig Vanderwagen, M.D. (Retired)

Recently, former Obama Ebola Czar Ronald Klain opined in the Washington Post that the Administration should set up an entirely new bureaucratic agency to handle biological threats like the Zika virus because current tools are not sufficient to ensure that our government is prepared. In his former role, Mr. Klain saw why we must be vigilant if we are going to be prepared to respond quickly to the next health emergency that threatens our security. But he is wrong in his assertion that the government needs a new bureaucracy to fulfill this role. Given our work to strengthen our medical and public health preparedness and response capabilities, we argue today that the federal government already has the response framework it needs. We just need to make sure these tools are sufficiently funded and ever ready.

Mr. Klain is right that we owe the American people effective responses to emerging threats. Zika is here, and the next threat is likely not far behind. We must be prepared for all of these threats, and that requires sustained leadership and funding. But the suggestion to create a new Public Health FEMA is uninformed. We do not need a Public Health FEMA because the framework for responding to serious health threats?—?whether natural or man-made?—?already exists today.

This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the enactment of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), legislation authored by Sen. Burr and Sen. Edward Kennedy. PAHPA applied the lessons we learned from Katrina and 9/11, because our nation must be prepared for what we might face?—?whether Mother Nature surprises us with Zika or terrorists attack us.

PAHPA established critical tools, like the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, to accelerate the development of medical countermeasures, such as vaccines and treatments for diseases like Smallpox and Ebola, so that we are better prepared to protect American lives and can respond more nimbly in the midst of an emerging crisis. PAHPA created the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) to implement and coordinate preparation and response. There is no shortage of health care challenges that the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration face each day, whether it’s finding a cure for cancer or preventing diabetes. That’s why PAHPA intentionally charged the ASPR with the singular 24/7 focus on being prepared to respond to an Ebola or a Zika. The statute is clear: when a public health emergency arises, ASPR is in charge.

Congress also created Project BioShield to spur the development of the medicines we need to protect Americans from identified chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. BioShield also makes it possible for the government to procure these medicines so we have them at the ready. Gutting the funding for BioShield, as the Administration has proposed, is shortsighted and dangerous.

The framework we created 10 years ago is thoughtfully, and lawfully, laid out already. It makes no sense to reinvent the wheel. While we recognize this Administration’s adage “let no crisis go to waste”, we ask that the Administration leverage these well planned structures before trying to start from scratch.

Richard Burr is the senior United States Senator from North Carolina and authored the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act

Retired Rear Admiral (Dr.) Craig Vanderwagen served as the first HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response

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