Brooks champions key measures to fortify U.S. biodefense as part of 21st Century Cures

U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) praised the substantive 21st Century Cures Act for including bipartisan provisions that she helped author to strengthen national security in the event of a biological attack.

The Strengthening Public Health Emergency Response Act, a bill aimed at improving U.S. biodefense efforts, was introduced by Brooks and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) earlier this year.  Provisions in the biodefense bill were included in the sweeping $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures medical research package.

The Senate voted 94-5 on Wednesday to approve the legislation, which now goes to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

The bill would incentivize investments in vaccines and treatments for dangerous diseases and pathogens.

“When we have enemies that are becoming more and more sophisticated and are trying to find more ways to harm the American people, we have to do everything we can to make ourselves more resilient and to prepare for any possible attack,” Brooks said in a recent interview with the Ripon Advance.

“I think we have not focused sufficient attention on our national biodefense in this country.”

The United States needs a strong biodefense position in the event a terrorist organization should ever weaponize a biological agent such as anthrax or small pox, Brooks said. Naturally occurring biological threats, such as Ebola or Zika, can also pose a risk to national security.

The provisions included in the Cures Act help streamline the process for vaccines to be developed to address biological and chemical threats and to enhance the Strategic National Stockpile.  It would expand the Priority Review Voucher program for material threats identified by the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, pharmaceutical companies would have greater incentive to develop, test and distribute vaccines and treatments for specialized diseases.

Brooks, who focuses on biodefense issues as part of her membership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the measure is an important step toward helping the private sector work with government to prepare the country in the event of an attack.

Also included is a measure to reinstate the original contracting authority provided to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which would ensure faster development of critical medical countermeasures.

The biodefense provisions included in 21st Century Cures are a meaningful part of the legislative package, but Brooks said average citizens might not realize their significance.

Brooks served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana when anthrax attacks occurred following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two U.S. Senate offices, killing five people and infecting 17 others in what became the worst biological attacks in U.S. history.

“That was one of the first times when our country really realized what an incredible threat to our national security something like anthrax could be. This has been an interest of mine personally, but I don’t think it has been something the country has been focused on enough,” Brooks said.

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, chaired by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former Gov. Tom Ridge, sounded an alarm last year when it released a report that found America’s national biodefense strategy needed significant improvement. The report identified capability gaps and recommended changes to U.S. policy and laws to strengthen national biodefense.