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Ebola Drives Interest in More Biomedical Research

Lawmakers are using the Ebola outbreak to call for a broader investment in biomedical research and public health funding to avoid scrambling to respond to a specific disease.

Top appropriators from both parties say they are committed to investing in biomedical research, particularly the National Institutes of Health. But the parties have not agreed on how to boost that funding, and lawmakers also have criticized some of the government’s public health preparations.

Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee funding the Department of Health and Human Services, has introduced a bill (HR 5797) that would provide $5 billion for the Public Health Emergency Fund. The fund is meant to hold resources that the HHS secretary can distribute when a public health emergency is declared, but it has been funded only twice since its establishment in 1983, according to DeLauro’s office.

“The Public Health Emergency Fund has been largely ignored, and that needs to end,” DeLauro said in a statement. “Not using every resource available to deal with issues like H1N1, Ebola, or Enterovirus D68 is an abdication of our responsibilities.”

In the Senate, Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called for hearings into whether HHS’s Project Bioshield is failing to properly identify and respond to threats. The program is aimed at speeding the development, acquisition, and availability of medical countermeasures for a variety of threats. McCaskill said the project has been too focused on anthrax, and not prepared enough for influenza and other infectious diseases.

In addition, lawmakers have questioned why more hospitals were not better prepared to handle Ebola patients, noting that some hospitals criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for not providing better protocols.

“One of the things that Ebola has shown us very clearly is Mother Nature always has the upper hand,” and HHS will need to build up the country’s capacity for training, equipment, and high-containment facilities, said Nicole Lurie, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

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