Escalate Federal Action Against The Coronavirus Before It’s Too Late

Health And Human Services Briefs The Media On The Department's Response To The Coronavirus

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 28: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a press conference on the coordinated public health response to the 2019 coronavirus (2019-nCoV) on January 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images).


The 2019 coronavirus, otherwise known as 2019-nCoV, is spreading faster and further each day. This past Sunday, infectious disease experts told The New York Times that a full blown pandemic is increasingly likely, if not inevitable.

Why, then, is the response of the United States government lagging so far behind? To date, the White House has assembled a task force, called for airport health screenings, and issued a variety of travel restrictions. Most recently, Alex Azar, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a public health emergency.

None of those measures, however, confronts the epidemic for what it is: a danger to national health security, and to human health at large. One federal agency that specializes in neutralizing threats of this sort is the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA for short.

Established in 2006 and directed by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dr. Rick Bright, BARDA presides over the discovery, development, and stockpiling of medical countermeasures that protect Americans against health security threats. This includes not just biological agents of warfare, but new and emerging infectious diseases—like the coronavirus.

Medical products capable of effectively countering the coronavirus, such as novel drugs or vaccines, lack the immediate market that usually lures major players in the pharmaceutical industry. BARDA bypasses the laws of supply and demand by allowing none other than the federal government to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into procuring and advancing promising products.

Project BioShield, one of several programs in the BARDA arsenal, is tasked with funding and fast tracking countermeasures from early to late development. Once FDA approved, the federal government can either deploy the countermeasures or send them to the Strategic National Stockpile, where they will remain until another occasion for deployment arises.

Were BARDA, with the support of other federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to open up the Project BioShield pipeline to a broad spectrum drug that targets the entire coronavirus family, any leftover quantities would be diverted to the Stockpile in case of future coronavirus outbreaks.

The financial health of BARDA and Project BioShield is sound, with both institutions faring better budgetarily than in 2019. BARDA was recently allotted a $562 million in public health emergency appropriations for the fiscal year of 2020, while Project BioShield received $735 million. Is it so much to ask that the United States government commit a fraction of these funds to targeting a soon to be pandemic?

Countering threats to national health security like the coronavirus, after all, is the reason BARDA and Project BioShield were created, which means this intervention would be continuous with legislative action against outbreaks past. In fifteen years, Project BioShield has amassed a portfolio of 27 products. Among the countermeasures procured by BARDA and shuttled to the Strategic National Stockpile through Project BioShield are an anthrax vaccine and two anthrax antitoxins.

As one of the researchers who, in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks, led the development of these drugs, I can say with confidence that the United States government is fully capable of acting swiftly in the face of a public health crisis. It is in the best interest of the White House Coronavirus Task Force—and the health of the nation—to add an anti coronavirus drug to the Project BioShield portfolio. If the federal government waits too long to leverage the rapid response capabilities at its disposal, we will not only be vulnerable to 2019-nCoV, but epidemics to come.


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Originally published on Forbes (February 4, 2020)

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.