Biodefense Takes Center Stage at House Oversight Hearing

WASHINGTON (CN) – Is the nation ready to defend against antibiotic-resistant diseases or bioterrorism? What would the response to a biological attack or disease pandemic look like?

(Cynthia Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)

Those threats and the collaboration of private, federal and local agencies to respond to them were the focus of a hearing Wednesday in the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security on biodefense preparedness.

Congressman Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said at the beginning of the hearing that around 2.4 million people could die in high-income countries between 2015 and 2050 without an effort to contain antimicrobial resistance, according to an April report to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Drug-resistant diseases already cause about 700,000 deaths globally each year and these numbers rise in cases like multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, which could claim millions of lives globally each year by 2050 if no action is taken.

Dr. Helen Boucher, director of the Tufts Center for Integrated Management of Antimicrobial Resistance, said at the hearing that she had recently treated a patient who had survived a Leukemia diagnosis with the help of chemotherapy, but then contracted an antibiotic-resistant infection.

“When I sat down to deliver this news to her, she said, ‘How can this be? Surely you’re going to find something to treat this,’” Boucher said. “But she ultimately died 10 days later. This lady, in the prime of her life, who had overcome cancer, died from an antibiotic-resistant infection.”

Such infections are costing health care providers in the U.S. a lot of money. Patients infected with an antimicrobial disease normally will extend their hospital stays, among other occurring expenses, which results in $20 billion in excess health care costs annually. About 162,000 Americans lose their lives to these infections each year.

Efforts to combat these diseases are also dwindling. The mere use of antibiotics against a disease increases its resistance to that drug. While a pipeline of effective antibiotics could help, nearly all large pharmaceutical companies have left the antibiotic development field.

There are currently only 42 antibiotics in development by these companies, of which only 16 have the potential to treat the worst infections, Boucher testified.

Boucher said antimicrobial infections and diseases also directly impact our national security, through the threat they pose to the nation’s armed forces. Between 2004 and 2009, over 3,300 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan became severely ill from a single pathogen, she said.

Dr. Asha George, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, talked about her experiences with drug-resistant diseases during her time in Operation Desert Storm, which was partially driven by Iran’s possession of biological and chemical weapons.

A motivating factor to combat the problem was ensuring biological attacks never come to the U.S., and to develop an effective response for if they did.

“I know what it feels like to be operating in an arena under the specter of biological warfare,” George said.

George’s organization released a report in 2015 on the nation’s biodefense preparedness, which gave the government a list of 87 action items to address, among other recommendations, to make the country more ready for a potential biological attack. The report confirmed a lack of preparation for the country, if a biological attack were to occur.

“In short, the nation is not prepared for biological outbreaks, acts of bioterrorism, biological warfare,” she said.

Chris Currie, director of disaster recovery at the Government Accountability Office, said one issue with responding to these threats is the fragmentation of power across all levels of government and the private sector. He called for a more focused, coordinated effort to combat potential biological threats.

“We said before, there are almost two dozen presidentially appointed officials that have some sort of responsibility for biodefense,” Currie said. “They make this very, very difficult to tackle because departments can’t tell other departments what to do and they can’t tell them how to spend their money.”

The committee also heard from Dr. Cham Dallas, a professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Institute for Disaster Management.

Dallas said a huge challenge in the event of a mass casualty situation would be the ability of rural hospitals to respond – physically and financially.

“These rural hospitals, for them, a morgue is a little room with an air conditioner, window unit,” he said. “A lot of these facilities might have maybe a couple weeks of money on hand. They’ll collapse under this pressure.”

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