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Congress is weighing cuts to the Pentagon disease-fighting budget

Biden's budget request targets two Defense programs

Technicians work at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground, where chemical and biological weapon defenses are tested.
Technicians work at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground, where chemical and biological weapon defenses are tested. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Corrected 11:00 a.m. |

Congress will soon decide whether to agree to a Biden administration proposal to cut spending on Defense Department programs that detect and counter diseases, even as COVID-19’s U.S. death toll exceeds 800,000 people. 

The Pentagon, under both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, has asked Congress to scale back funding for the Biological Threat Reduction Program, despite successes that include funding a lab in Thailand that in January 2020 first detected the coronavirus outside of China. 

Spending on a related Pentagon initiative, the Chemical and Biological Defense Program, which helps develop everything from vaccines to protective suits, has also shrunk. It has lost nearly a third of its budget to inflation over the last dozen years — and Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget proposes yet another cut.  

Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, told CQ Roll Call that the Chemical and Biological Defense Program helped develop early mRNA vaccines, Swine flu therapeutics, a vaccine for the Ebola virus and supported Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to develop and deploy coronavirus vaccines.

“Those early biodefense investments and the Defense Department’s support to Operation Warp Speed have likely saved millions of lives,” Weber said.

Deadliest weapon to date

The National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate cleared for Biden’s signature on Wednesday, would add money above Biden’s requested amount for both of these programs. But appropriators, who provide the funds, are divided about how much to spend.

The parsimonious recent funding requests contrast sharply with not only the pressing reality of a plague but also with official Pentagon pronouncements that often highlight the importance of biological security. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, for example, launched in November a Biological Posture Review, to prioritize U.S. military preparedness for natural or man-made diseases. 

“We must prepare to operate in a biological threat environment and support the National biodefense enterprise, both at home and abroad. To support that vision, the Department of Defense (DoD) will prioritize biodefense across the full spectrum of biological threats, from naturally occurring to accidental and deliberate biological incidents,” Austin wrote in a memo ordering the review to begin.

The threat from diseases or germ warfare was dramatized last year when 1,200 sailors contracted the coronavirus on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, ultimately leading to the ouster of the ship’s commander and the firing of the acting Navy secretary.

A Pentagon budget document this year called COVID-19 “the greatest proximate threat to our nation’s security.” 

The virus has arguably redefined national security. Bugs, not bombs, have killed nearly as many Americans as died in all of the country’s conflicts since World War II. 

Early warning system

The threat is not just from naturally occurring diseases. Several countries are believed to possess biological weapons or the ability to rapidly produce them, and the threat may be growing, intelligence experts say.

The Biological Threat Reduction Program is aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to global disease outbreaks — whatever the cause — in about 30 countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. 

The program got its start after the Cold War, by dismantling former Soviet bioweapons labs, dealing with the pathogens produced there and re-employing Russian scientists.

Today, the program provides training and technical support to promote safety and security, disease surveillance and help in preventing the proliferation of biological materials, technology and components, said David Lasseter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction policy.

A cut in funding to the program would result in fewer countries with such support, Lasseter told CQ Roll Call — and that, in turn, “will mean less ability to identify emerging infectious diseases and reduced biosafety/biosecurity globally.”

Yet the Pentagon’s fiscal 2022 budget request sought to reduce funding for the Biological Threat Reduction Program by 45 percent — from $225 million enacted in fiscal 2021 down to $124 million.

Trump, too, had sought to reduce the funding in both fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021 budgets, as part of an effort to shift more Pentagon money to programs such as nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles. Ironically, the proposed funding changes were justified in a February 2020 Defense Department brochure on the grounds that major disease outbreaks or biological weapons should be counted as “near-zero-probability threats.” 

When the Pentagon again proposed scaling back funding in fiscal 2022, a budget justification document argued that the fiscal 2021 spending hike was a one-time event, seemingly implying that the Pentagon’s lower fiscal 2022 request was needed to bring the program back to its normal funding.

But in reality, Congress in fiscal 2021 did not add much money to the program but merely resisted Trump’s proposed cut — because lawmakers said they wanted to keep the funding from decreasing, not to give it an unusual increase.

The new National Defense Authorization Act would rebuff the proposed fiscal 2022 cut to the biological threats program and instead authorize spending $229 million. 

Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego, chairman of the House Armed Services Intelligence and Special Operations Subcommittee, which oversees the biological threats program, called the budget proposal “deeply troubling” in a June statement for CQ Roll Call.

Appropriations issue

The money for the program in fiscal 2022 will be determined by appropriators, but probably not until February, when lawmakers hope to replace a stopgap spending bill with new appropriations measures.

Appropriators are divided on what to spend on the biological early-warning system. The House-passed Defense spending bill would provide $229 million. But the Senate’s fiscal 2022 Pentagon appropriations bill would provide just the $124 million request. The Senate Appropriations Committee did not respond to a request for explanation.

In contrast to the Senate panel’s approach, the House Appropriations Committee report accompanying its bill said the biological warning program plays a “crucial role in detecting, preparing for, and fighting emerging global diseases, including pandemics, as well as reducing the proliferation of biological weapons and related technologies and expertise.”

Hayley Severance, senior director for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a research group, told CQ Roll Call the program needs to be well funded to address “tremendous vulnerabilities” in the global biological safety net.

A 2021 index produced by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security found that 178 countries scored a 50 or below out of 100 points for both biosecurity and biosafety indicators, Severance said.

“The Biological Threat Reduction Program, when fully funded, is well-positioned to work with global partners to address these gaps in our global systems that leave us all vulnerable to future, catastrophic biological events,” she said.

Severance recommends $250 million a year for the program. 

By comparison, the Council on Strategic Risks, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank specializing in national security policy, in a report to be released Dec. 20, recommends that the program get a minimum of $400 million per year over the next decade. Weber, the former Pentagon official, is now a senior fellow at the council. 

Center of gravity in chem-bio defense

The Chemical and Biological Defense Program, meanwhile, provides funding and centralizes management of dozens of Defense Department programs aimed at detecting, neutralizing and providing protection from such threats. It has also worked to develop vaccines and treatments.

It centralizes Pentagon efforts at places such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where cutting edge technologies are explored; the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where defenses are tested; and the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., which has been in the forefront of coronavirus research. 

In fiscal 2010, the chem-bio program’s budget was $1.58 billion, and in fiscal 2021 it is $1.45 billion — nearly a one-third drop when adjusted for inflation, according to the Council on Strategic Risks’ report titled:  “A Handbook for Ending Catastrophic Biological Risks: How the United States Can Prevent Future Pandemics and Deter Biological Weapons.”

For fiscal 2022, the Biden administration requested even less: just under $1.4 billion.

The defense authorization bill recommends adding almost $79 million to that total.

But both the House and Senate Appropriations panels would trim that further, by either $16 million or $2 million, respectively. 

The Council on Strategic Risks recommends a major turnabout for the program’s budget, urging that it net at least $2 billion now and grow to at least $6.5 billion by end of the decade. 

“While such investments should be aimed at addressing biological weapons threats, they should be also seen as part of a whole-of-government surge to never again allow the nation to experience the kinds of mass effects the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought,” the report said.

The photo caption has been corrected to describe accurately the role of the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground.

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