Biodefense Spending: How much is enough?

WASHINGTON—Since 9/11 the U.S. has spent some $50 billion on biodefense, and next year’s budget calls for $6.4 billion in more funding.

But that’s not nearly enough to adequately protect the country from serious biosecurity threats, says Dr. Robert Kadlec, former member of the Homeland Security Council and director of biological defense policy under President George W. Bush.

“We understand that a nuclear event and a biological event can result in the same lethal impact,” Kadlec said.

Even so, he said, biodefense funding hasn’t kept pace.

“If we doubled the biodefense investment today, it would be about as much or a little less than what we spend on nuclear defense,” Kadlec said.

He wants the federal government to pump $10 to $15 billion annually into biodefense programs, ranging from research to developing medical countermeasures to stockpiling those drugs that would alleviate a biological disaster.

Making a biological weapon is technically easier and cheaper than constructing a nuclear weapon. Even a small release of a biological weapon can have lethal consequences. Recall the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and infected 17 others. It took just 15 grams of anthrax to kill those five individuals, and the attack cost the economy an estimated $6 billion, according to a 2010 U.S. commission on preventing weapons of mass destruction. The FBI spent hundreds of million of dollars jetting across the world to try and figure out the identity of the anthrax mailer, while the Department of Homeland Security, along with other government agencies like Health and Human Services, spent hundreds of millions of federal dollars at home to build a biodefense infrastructre. In 2004, Congress passed Project Bioshield, which pumped several billion dollars into medical countermeasure research and emergency preparedness.

a culture of anthrax (Image from Flickr/agrillifetoday)

The 2010 bipartisan Congressional commission on preventing WMDs concluded that the U.S. should be more aggressive in the way it combats bioterror threats. Go on the offensive, so to speak. That translates into more research, more public health employees and more federal spending.

Addressing the current state of biodefense funding, Crystal Franco, policy researcher at the Center for Biosecurity said: “I think the money is being well spent. There just, overall, needs to be more.”

Asking for more money given the current state of the economy is an uphill battle. Just because the administration’s 2012 budget includes a 16 percent increase in biodefense funding doesn’t mean a financial boost is a given. First, the biodefense budget may not get full funding from Congress given the austere autumn ahead. Further, most of the money that goes to biodefense is part of a broader emergency preparedness agenda – it splits dollars with other preparedness programs.

“Over time we have adapted more of an all-hazards approach government-wide,” Franco said.

Immediately following the anthrax mailings, biodefense programs had more specific objectives. This included a hospital preparedness program of the Health and Human Services Department. The purpose of the funding was to prepare hospitals in the event of a biological disaster.

The current, broad approach to hazard preparedness largely places biodefense under a giant umbrella along with science, public health and national security initiatives. Franco notes that the broad distribution doesn’t inherently take away from biodefense preparation. Biodefense doesn’t get less funding because of the grouping.

But another governmental change could jeopardize biosecurity: a pullback in biodefense grant money. Franco said over the last few years the government has provided less grant money for biosecurity researchers. Cutting grants translates into less people working on public health research and less preparedness. That could mean fewer people with the training and skills necessary to care for the public in the event of a biological disaster. Furthermore, only a small portion of federal money for biosecurity research is put toward preparedness.

Kadlec is concerned about a declining public health work force and suggested $1 to $3 billion might be needed just to stabilize a work force that is losing employees to retirement. In 2010, the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service released a joint study that addressed a growing shortage of public health employees.

The Obama Administration has addressed biosecurity in writing and policy making. There’s a White House web page devoted to informing the public about biosecurity. However, Kadlec wants more than words from the White House: He wants action, in the form of a global biosecurity summit.

President Barack Obama has “had a number of nuclear related events” but “has not uttered one word” about implementing a biosecurity summit, Kadlec said.

Ultimately, how much emergency preparedness is needed to address bioterror or biological disasters is a difficult question to answer.

“How much is enough?” Kadlec asked. “There’s a policy element to this that hasn’t been fully baked.’’

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