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The Hill: Will Support for Biomedical Research Be Dead on Arrival?

January 30, 2015
In an op-ed over at The Hill, Dr. Claire Pomeroy, an infectious disease specialist and president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, discusses an important question: “How is it that the United States, which has historically held the global lead in medical innovation, was caught flat-footed by Ebola?”

Dr. Pomeroy points to a lack of federal funding for medical research as one of the primary culprits for our lack of effective Ebola answers, a problem which BIO’s Jim Greenwood has previously discussed.

Ebola reminds Dr. Pomeroy of another devastating medical crisis, HIV/AIDS:

“For me, Ebola brings back the memories of the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic: a mystery new virus, lack of public support for finding a cure, political resistance to dedicating research funds to a disease that happened to “others.” When I established the first clinic to treat patients with HIV at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Hospital, there was little we could do other than hold patients’ hands as they died. The antiviral drugs were still years away. The research that would produce lifesaving therapies could not be flipped on like a light switch.”

That’s why it is so important to have a steady, predictable source of federal support for medical research, particularly for Ebola and other diseases where there is no viable commercial market in which developers can recoup the enormous costs of discovering, developing, and securing approval of a new drug.

The Project BioShield Act of 2004 sought to accomplish just that by providing a ten-year, advance appropriation of $5.6 billion for the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund (SRF), managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), for the development and stockpiling of medical countermeasures. The purpose of the SRF was to create a robust market for MCMs, unleashing the ingenuity of innovative private-sector companies to prepare us to respond to health security threats, which remain an uncertain, menacing reality in the 21st century. The SRF has seen many successes: since 2004, twelve MCMs have been procured with Project BioShield funds, with 12 more expected through 2019, and that could be in addition to the new products being developed for Ebola.

Unfortunately, that track record could be jeopardized by a lack of adequate funding.

When Project BioShield was reauthorized in 2013, Congress authorized $2.8 billion over five years for the program. Unfortunately, appropriators only funded the program to the tune of $255 million annually for Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015, leaving the government's private sector partners in the dark as to what future funding might look like. If Congress had appropriated the full $2.8 billion over five years, HHS would have the flexibility to manage the existing MCM pipeline and also pivot to ramp-up the development of products to prevent and treat Ebola and other newly emerging threats.

As Congress begins the appropriations process for 2016, they would do well to remember the lessons the Ebola crisis has taught us about the importance of investing in preparedness.