Despite his armed forces losing ground in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has become an increasing threat to global security. Last month, he delivered “the most serious escalation” of his war via illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory and dangerous nuclear rhetoric, warning that he is ready to use all means necessary against what he perceives as threats from the West.
American military leaders are taking Putin as his word. Former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen called Putin a “cornered animal” that is becoming “more and more dangerous.”
It’s a stark reminder that America must be prepared to face whatever public health emergencies may lie ahead, whether naturally occurring or an intentional chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.
It brings some comfort to know that we have protection from a potential bioterror attack in the form of vaccines and treatments stored in the Strategic National Stockpile. In fact, those very tools are currently being utilized to combat the current outbreak of a far less lethal relative of smallpox, monkeypox. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the monkeypox case count is just over 28,000 and demand for vaccines and therapeutics remains high.
On October 18, the Biden administration released its comprehensive plan to protect the nation from future pandemics and biological threats. It includes 20 different federal agencies working together to detect future threats, respond to outbreaks, and help the economy recover from an incident. But the robust plan requires robust funding. Congress needs to follow through.
Recently, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee held a hearing examining the federal response to monkeypox. Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) reiterated the importance of funding preparedness, saying “[W]e need to be clear-eyed about what went wrong, not just on the challenges we faced in the last several months, but that we have faced for decades,” adding that millions of vials of smallpox vaccine in the SNS had not been replenished as they expired.
Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) emphasized the coordination saying, “We need a consistent, coherent, government-wide response to be effective.” And Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell urged, “It is important however, that as we move forward with our response, we consider ways to preserve our smallpox capability.” They’re all correct.
Congress must appropriate the funds needed to prevent monkeypox from becoming endemic in our country and also to ensure the SNS is replenished so we are fully prepared to properly address potentially more dangerous public health threats in the future. The stakes are too high to not act.
The treatments and vaccines that fight monkeypox are the same ones used to combat smallpox. While the disease was declared eradicated in 1980, a single new case anywhere in the world would be devastating Simply put: investing in monkeypox prevention is investing in smallpox prevention. And as we have learned in recent months, the reverse is also true.
We are fortunate that we had tools to combat monkeypox available in the SNS; restocking them is imperative. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set out to ensure there were more than 285 million doses of smallpox vaccines available in the stockpile, enough to vaccinate every American at the time. As of today, that number is closer to 100 million.
The SNS was originally established to respond to a foreign attack. Between the constant threat of global terrorism and despots like Vladimir Putin attacking his neighbors, America must remain vigilant. We must not ignore those threats, particularly as Putin conscripts thousands more soldiers, spouts nuclear threats, and escalates his war in Ukraine.
A specific funding bill will provide needed resources, vaccines, and treatments to communities still in need of them for the current monkeypox outbreak. At the same time, this funding will also ensure that those tools sourced from the SNS are replenished so we are prepared to address a potential future smallpox outbreak or bioterror attack.
This is not an either/or situation. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to the strategic public-private partnerships created to ensure the U.S. is prepared for potential future public health threats. They are keeping us safe today and will continue to do so, if appropriate funding is granted, well into the future.
Before the end of the year, Congress will finalize robust appropriations legislation. That spending legislation should include specific funding for monkeypox and additional funds to plus up the SNS. COVID forced us to pay the price for being ill-prepared; the future could hold far costlier consequences if we fail to heed lessons learned.
Former Congressman Jack Kingston serves as Secretariat for the Alliance for Biosecurity, a coalition of biopharmaceutical companies and laboratory/academic partners that promotes a strong public-private partnership to ensure the availability of medical countermeasures to protect public health and enhance national security. He represented Georgia’s First Congressional District in Georgia from 1993 to 2015.
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