Given this spate of infectious disease outbreaks and the growing resistance of “superbugs” to our aging armamentarium of antibiotics, it's clear the U.S. needs to beef up its public health infrastructure to prepare for an era when major and minor pandemics are more common. Yet that is not where the government's main attention has been focused.
Last week, the nation paused to remember 9/11, which led to a permanent war on terror. Less remembered from those days is the nation's reaction to an anthrax attack that followed the twin towers attack within weeks and turned out to be the work of a rogue scientist whose motives remain unclear (he took his own life in 2008 as the FBI closed in on solving the case).
But that domestic terrorism incident had its own enduring legacy: the nation's war on bioterror. Since the early 2000s, Congress has authorized more than $8 billion to procure drugs and vaccines to counter potential bioterror agents, including $5.6 billion for stockpiles to fight diseases including anthrax and smallpox, which have been largely eradicated except in chemical labs.
Last year, Congress reauthorized spending another $2.8 billion over the next five years on those and similar targets. The list of priorities was dominated by countermeasures aimed at anthrax, botulism, smallpox, cyanide, nerve gas and nuclear agents.
While the legislation also allowed for spending money on fighting “emerging infectious diseases,” the only two listed in a Government Accountability Office review of the program issued this year were pandemic flu and viral hemorrhagic fever. It was this element of the program that funded research into the few experimental drugs that are now being tested on Ebola patients.
HHS' overall “preparedness and response” budget, meanwhile, totaled about $1 billion, with nearly half for countermeasure development and only $382 million for hospital preparedness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was given just $228 million to spend on maintaining its “early warning system to rapidly identify new infectious disease threats.”
The government doesn't have to go deeper in the deficit hole to substantially improve its response to emerging infectious diseases. It needs only to rebalance its priorities by ending spending on nonexistent threats and concentrating on real ones.
Follow Merrill Goozner on Twitter: @MHgoozner