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Opinion: Ensure US prepares for next public health disaster

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it became clear that state and local governments needed more — more masks, more gowns, more gloves, more goggles, more ventilators — all eyes turned toward the federal government for support and the public became widely aware of a little-known, but crucially important entity — the Strategic National Stockpile. 

Originally established in 1999 as a pharmaceutical stockpile of medical countermeasures to protect citizens from bioterrorist attack, the expectations placed on the SNS gradually expanded, but neither its capacity nor resourcing followed suit. The SNS was never meant to meet the needs of every crisis or national disaster, but to provide invaluable temporary assistance in the event of an outbreak — manmade or natural — while other national resources were mobilized.

Unfortunately, federal, state, and local governments have come to rely upon it for everything from natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding to biodefense response for threats like COVID-19, bioterrorism, and the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. It became an all-purpose “rainy day” fund that was drawn down, but never replenished or expanded accordingly.

It is now clear that we need to establish an expanded SNS. The administration and Congress must prioritize and fund the SNS to both address the current shortfalls and to prepare for the next public health threat. At the same time, the government must stop robbing Peter to pay Paul, and use the SNS for what it was intended — public health emergencies. 

Following the 2001 anthrax attack against Congress, I went to work in 2004 as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to create Project BioShield, which allowed the government to acquire and store vaccines and treatments in the stockpile to protect the public from bioterrorism. We updated the enterprise in 2006 by creating the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and dramatically improved coordination and response with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Then later, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, I saw first-hand how the threats from chemical or biological attacks by hostile nation-states or terrorist groups were very real and constantly changing. The biodefense/preparedness enterprise cannot close its eye to one threat as it looks to the next.

Even at its highest regular appropriation of $705 million, Congress significantly underfunded the SNS well below what was needed, and we sadly saw the effects of that shortfall first-hand. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress smartly surged supplemental funding to the SNS, which allowed the stockpile to quickly resupply critical PPE that had for years prior been underfunded. 

Unfortunately, without government investment, the private sector doesn’t have much incentive to make or purchase emergency products that go into the stockpile for any of the more than 13 chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material threats to our nation identified by the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, as it currently stands, only a small handful companies make these types of products or invest in development of new countermeasures to address those threats. 

As more COVID-19 vaccines are administered and the current crisis finally begins to abate, Congress and the administration should begin to look forward, toward better equipping us for the next public health hazard we know will come. Reform in this space must build on the real lessons learned over this past painful year, while maintaining a military-like readiness to protect Americans against biological threats. Here are three principles to keep in mind: 

► First, the government must clarify the mission of the Strategic National Stockpile, and ensure stakeholders at the state, local and federal level all understand that mission. The SNS must be for pandemics and other public health emergencies, and not a one-stop-shop for every crisis or national disaster.

► Second, we must fund our biodefense preparedness with the same level of sustained commitment and focus that we fund our other national and homeland security priorities. It is clear our prioritization is inadequate. Congress must provide predictable funding that reflects the multi-year, interagency Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise budget.

► Third, we must not overcorrect and simply prepare for that which has already happened. We must have a clear-eyed view of the full scope of threats facing our country and prepare accordingly, fighting the temptations to focus entirely on fighting the last war. 

National security and pandemic preparedness are bipartisan issues and both parties must work together to establish a firm foundation upon which we can pursue reform today. The Strategic National Stockpile is a critical to our public health and our national security response. Now is the time for Congress and the Biden administration to prioritize it accordingly.

Mike Rogers is a former Michigan member of Congress who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and is a senior fellow with the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Follow him @RepMikeRogers.