As former elected officials from Midwestern states, we are heartsick watching farmers across the region destroy millions of chickens infected with highly pathogenic bird flu because, frankly, they have no other choice.
The last time this disease struck the United States in 2015, our country detected infections in 21 states, spent $879 million to respond to the epidemic and depopulated more than 50 million birds on 232 farms. The total estimated cost to the U.S. economy was $3.3 billion. Seven years later, our country still seems unable to do much more than respond by culling large numbers of birds again, costing farmers dearly and driving up the cost of food at a time when inflation is already at a record high.
Bird flu and COVID-19 painfully remind us of how disruptive and destructive biological events can be to our public health, economy and national security. And now the Russian invasion of Ukraine is yet another stark reminder of how our adversaries may use biological weapons to attack humanity.
We are both privileged to serve on the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, an organization that identifies gaps in the federal government’s ability to defend the nation against biological threats. The commission has been making recommendations to Congress and the White House to eliminate gaps in national biodefense for seven years.
Our commission understood the danger biological threats posed when the commission held its first meeting in 2014. These threats are only increasing today and will continue to increase in the future unless the administration and Congress act immediately.
The spread of bird flu and the continuation of COVID-19 show how two simultaneously occurring diseases can create a layered crisis. However, we cannot afford to focus on just these two diseases to the exclusion of all other biological threats. While the current decrease in COVID-19 infections brings hope, the next variant of the coronavirus that causes SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome; another emerging infectious disease; laboratory mishap; or biological attack could be right around the corner.
We must also worry about other nation-states and their continued pursuit of biological weapons. Last year, the State Department reported that there were active biological weapons programs in Russia and North Korea, with China and Iran following by a close margin.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is unconscionable and unjustifiable. We stand with the citizens of Ukraine as they defend their country against these acts of aggression that have upended the global order in ways not seen since World War II.
Russia’s incursion has not only increased the nuclear and chemical threat, but it has also greatly increased the threat of biological warfare. Russia seeks to obtain and control critical infrastructure throughout the region and could use biological weapons to attack the Ukrainian populace, leaving these laboratories and other critical infrastructure intact.
The situation is dire, but just as we cannot afford to focus on COVID-19 to the exclusion of all else, we cannot afford to focus on Russia to the exclusion of all others. Other nation-states and terrorist organizations are also producing or trying to obtain biological weapons.
To combat these numerous threats to our country’s health and national security, our commission has recommended the establishment of an Apollo Program for Biodefense to coordinate government research and development and invest in science and technology to help eliminate pandemics in 10 years. We were glad to see that the president’s recent budget request for fiscal year 2023 echoed these recommendations by calling for $88.2 billion in new funding to prepare for pandemics and enhance America’s ability to rapidly produce and deliver medical countermeasures against biological threats. It specifically addresses 10 priorities from our Apollo Program report. This is the kind of transformational investment we need to safeguard our country against future catastrophes, and we urge Congress to implement it as swiftly as possible.
All Americans have felt the consequences of one devastating biological event caused by COVID-19, and many are now affected by a second caused by bird flu. We simply cannot fall into a cycle of complacency, moving on to the next crisis when one ends.
As former lawmakers, we have seen this happen too many times before. We must learn lessons and ensure past mistakes are not repeated. Our national biodefense must be robust enough to meet and defeat the array of biological threats bearing down on us — both here at home and around the world.