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Biden would slash Pentagon money for pandemic prevention

U.S. intelligence agencies and scientists predict that pandemics will become increasingly common

President Joe Biden speaks with lawmakers as he exits the House chamber at the end of his address to the joint session of Congress on April 28.
President Joe Biden speaks with lawmakers as he exits the House chamber at the end of his address to the joint session of Congress on April 28. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Joe Biden has proposed cutting by nearly half the Pentagon’s budget for the leading U.S. government program for preventing, detecting and responding to global disease outbreaks, a move that even the White House’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill oppose as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The so-called Biological Threat Reduction Program finds and fights emerging global diseases that can threaten U.S. troops and, ultimately, the world’s population. In fact, the Pentagon program funded a lab in Thailand that detected in January 2020 the first case of novel coronavirus outside China.

The Defense Department wants the program’s fiscal 2022 budget to be set at $124 million — or 45 percent lower than the current level, according to the Pentagon’s budget justification documents, which were released earlier this month.

The budget documents provide incomplete explanations, at best, for the proposed cut, which has not been previously reported. Administration officials have not yet responded to several requests for an a more complete explanation of the proposed cutback.

‘Deeply troubling’

The proposed funding reduction comes as U.S. intelligence agencies and scientists predict that pandemics will become increasingly common and as COVID-19 still rages in many countries and hangs on in America.

Some of Biden’s top allies in Congress said they are baffled and concerned about the move, as are some Republicans and many experts on pandemics.

Senior members of the House Armed Services Committee told CQ Roll Call in statements that the funding must not be cut.

Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego, chairman of the Intelligence and Special Operations Subcommittee, which oversees the biological threats program, called the budget proposal “deeply troubling.”

“Rather than cut funding, we need to double down, learn from the global pandemic, and support programs that work to increase our capacity to anticipate and respond when another dangerous pathogen arises,” Gallego said.

Another senior member of the committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin, who chairs the cybersecurity panel, also said the biological protection program deserves more funding.

“At a time when the pandemic is still threatening our allies and partners, we should be investing in, not cutting, a program whose primary purpose is to detect and minimize the spread of dangerous pathogens,” Langevin said. “If 2020 taught us anything, it is that we absolutely must confront these challenges before they become crises.”

GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik of New York, another senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, criticized the proposed reduction in spending on the biological program as an example of what she called a shortchanging of the defense budget more broadly.

“The president’s budget is a gift to China and our adversaries around the world and unfortunately lacks adequate support for our military and critical programs like bio defense,” Stefanik said.

‘Early detection capability’

The U.S. military has been a leader in research and development of coronavirus vaccines and in disseminating them. And despite the proposed cut in the biological early-warning program, the Pentagon is still planning to spend $500 million in fiscal 2022 to continue to respond to COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics, officials have said.

COVID-19 is “the greatest proximate threat to our nation’s security,” said a Pentagon budget briefing slide presented to reporters on May 28.

The biological threats program is unique among these many efforts in that it is focused on fighting emerging pandemics overseas — just as the U.S. military has for two decades preferred to fight terrorism in other countries before it comes to the United States.

The biological initiative is part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which is administered by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

The program is aimed at enhancing the safety and security of facilities located in allied and partner nations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa that handle biological material. Through this initiative, the Pentagon pays for medical surveillance networks so that pandemics can be detected early. The focus is on not just diseases but also biological weapons.

“These capabilities counter the threat of theft or diversion of dangerous materials, counter the threat of accidental or intentional pathogen release, and establish an early detection capability for biological threats to contain outbreaks at their source before they can become destabilizing regional events or pose a threat to forces, the U.S. homeland, or partners abroad,” the Pentagon said in a fiscal 2022 budget document summarizing the program.

Experts alarmed

The Trump administration, like Biden’s, had sought to cut the program’s budget.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2020 request, drafted well before the pandemic, would have cut spending on the initiative by about 10 percent, but Congress increased its funding to $203 million.

Trump’s fiscal 2021 request, delivered to Capitol Hill as the virus began spreading domestically, would have cut the program’s funding by about one-third, down to $127 million. But Congress again rebuffed the move and instead provided $225 million in fiscal 2021.

Last year, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper’s plan was to move money from the pandemic prevention effort to nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles. But the reasoning behind the current Pentagon leadership’s decision remains unclear.

A table buried in the budget document suggests that the reason the Biden administration is seeking less money for the program in fiscal 2022 than was enacted in fiscal 2021 is primarily because Congress — in a supposedly “one time” action —added considerable sums to the program in fiscal 2021.

But Congress added money to the program in fiscal 2021 (for a total of $225 million) only to maintain its funding at the fiscal 2020 level (total of $203 million) with a slight increase — due, perhaps, to the fact that a pandemic was gripping the globe at the time.

Nothing in the congressional record last year — or in this week’s bipartisan rejection of the newly proposed cut — suggests lawmakers intended their funding level in fiscal 2021 to be a “one-time” event.

Kingston Reif, a defense expert with the Arms Control Association, said the proposed cut is “clearly inconsistent” with the current president’s goals, including global health security.

“Congress on a bipartisan basis rightly excoriated the wrecking ball taken to the program last year and increased the budget,” Reif said. “It should do the same this year.”

Hayley Severance, senior program officer for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization that focuses on enhancing biological security and combating the danger of mass casualty weapons, said the program should receive no less than $250 million per year.

The proposed cut in fiscal 2022 “seems ill-timed,” Severance said, “especially as questions around the origin of COVID-19 point to the need to prepare against all manner of biological threats.”

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