Statement of Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On The Coronavirus Virus

Since first emerging in Wuhan, China on December 31st, the outbreak of a new coronavirus, COVID-19 (“novel coronavirus”), has spread to 25 countries, infected more than 44,000 people, caused at least 1,100 deaths, forced entire cities into lockdown, triggered hundreds of international flight cancelations, restricted hundreds of Americans to U.S. military bases in a federal government quarantine, and caused significant economic harm to countries and businesses around the globe.  All this in only six weeks, with no end in sight.

The virus has infected and killed more people – and has done so faster – than the SARS outbreak in China in the early 2000s, which infected 8,098 people and caused 774 deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) has formally declared a public health emergency of international concern – the sixth such declaration since 2009 – and the outbreak will get worse, possibly far worse, before it gets better. 

While the novel coronavirus outbreak is alarming, and is creating fear around the world, it should not be surprising.

Scientists, epidemiologists, and other global health experts have for years warned that infectious disease outbreaks will continue to occur more frequently and cause greater harm, and that most emerging viruses will spread from animals to humans.  Such zoonotic viruses are increasingly common as human activity, including population growth and expanding human encroachment into wildlife habitat, increases contact between animals and humans, which is what happened in Wuhan.

The coronavirus strain threatening us today is believed to have emerged from a bat, and potentially passed through another animal, before infecting humans in a live-animal market.  Such animal markets, which in China and many other countries include bats, rats, birds, porcupines, and other animals infected with viruses, are sources of protein for hungry humans, but also serve as breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases. 

Scientists estimate that there are more than 1.6 million unknown viral disease species in mammalian and avian populations, of which an estimated 600,000 to 850,000 have the potential to infect humans.  And as we saw during SARS, Ebola, and MERS, and are now seeing once again, infectious disease outbreaks threaten not only human health but also cause economic harm and social upheaval.

We should all be asking whether we – the United States and the international community – are doing enough to combat and prepare for this known and escalating threat.  It seems obvious that we are not. 

In fact, while the President and Secretary of State have repeatedly said that protecting the health and safety of American citizens is their highest priority, that’s not borne out by the facts. The American people should be aware that the Trump Administration has consistently proposed cuts in funding for the very programs designed to help prevent outbreaks and contain the spread of infectious diseases like the novel coronavirus.  Even in the President’s fiscal year 2021 budget request sent to Congress this week – in the midst of a deadly infectious disease outbreak that will almost certainly become a global pandemic – the Administration has proposed to pay less than half of what the U.S. owes WHO, in addition to requesting a 10 percent cut to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pandemic preparedness programs.  It is a reckless game of Russian roulette with a global threat we absolutely must prepare for.  Yesterday it was SARS, then it was Ebola, today it is Ebola again and a coronavirus.  Tomorrow it may be something that is even deadlier and spreads even faster.  Fortunately for the American people, Congress has rejected those cuts in the past and increased funding for most global health programs, and I am confident we will do the same this year.  But far more needs to be done. 

Funding for pandemic preparedness at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USAID, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal agencies that play an indispensable role in preparing for and responding to outbreaks should be significantly increased, not forced to cut programs and personnel as the Administration has proposed.  It makes no sense to be shortchanging the agencies and programs we all depend on to protect public health, keep our ports of entry open, and keep our commerce flowing.

Pandemic response is critical, but often by then it is too late.  We can and must do more to proactively reduce pandemic risk.  One approach I have urged is for a global viral discovery effort.  Such a concept was proven successful through USAID’s PREDICT program, which used the collection and analysis of wildlife samples in areas of the world most at risk for zoonotic disease to identify new emerging viruses with pandemic potential.  PREDICT was able to discover hundreds of disease pathogens at their source, rather than waiting for human infection.    

In China, the PREDICT program sampled more than 10,000 bats and identified more than 500 new coronaviruses, including a strain that is a 96 percent match to the 2019 novel coronavirus strain.  The known existence of, and readily available data on, such a close relative is one reason China was able to quickly sequence the novel strain and identify the animal source of the outbreak.

As the ten-year PREDICT program comes to an end this year, USAID is working to design the next phase of programming to build on the successful analytical and modeling work demonstrated through PREDICT.  Others in the international community should use the lessons learned and techniques proven through PREDICT to inform their own efforts. 

Investing in biomedical research focused on infectious disease is another crucial, proactive step to reducing pandemic risk.  The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has a unique mandate to conduct and support basic and applied research on established infectious diseases and also to quickly launch a research response to newly emerging and reemerging infectious threats.  With NIAID support, scientists design and develop new diagnostics, treatments, and preventive strategies, including vaccines, which can be deployed to protect and treat people worldwide. 

Yet, in the midst of the novel coronavirus emergency, the President’s budget would cut $3.1 billion from NIH, and assumes the reduction is spread across-the-board to all 27 Institutes and Centers, including NIAID.  Slashing infectious disease research programs threatens our ability to develop better therapeutics and vaccines for high priority pathogens as well as the rapid development of medical countermeasures against emerging infectious diseases, like the coronavirus, when they arise.

The President’s budget features similar dangerous cuts to CDC programs that have been pivotal in combatting the novel coronavirus response, proposing a $693 million overall decrease from fiscal year 2020.  Although the Administration touts its $175 million proposal for Global Health Security in fiscal year 2021, it simultaneously cuts almost $100 million from other crucial global health investments, including in global HIV/AIDS, global polio eradication, global immunization and the global public health capacity and development programs.  This is short-sighted and dangerous. 

The President’s budget proposes only $50 million, a $35 million decrease compared to fiscal year 2020, for CDC’s Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund (IDRRRF), which has served as the primary source of funding for responding to the novel coronavirus outbreak. This risks potentially undermining the agency’s ability to access funding to initiate an early and rapid response to emerging pandemic threats like novel coronavirus when the U.S. is faced with a public health emergency.  The Administration also proposes an $85 million cut to the CDC’s Center on Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease and a $25 million cut to the Public Health Preparedness and Response program. 

Slashing these programs weakens CDC’s ability to provide rapid scientific support during outbreaks of infectious disease, maintain support for global health programs that build core public health capabilities and bolster frontline preparedness internationally, and ensure that state and local health departments are ready to handle many different types of emergencies that threaten the health and resilience of families, communities, and the nation.  Thus, while the White House named its fiscal year 2021 budget “A Budget for America’s Future”, it is anything but that.  There is no better example of where this Administration’s rhetoric clashes with reality than the drastic cuts they propose to the very programs that protect the American people from deadly communicative diseases. 

I continue to urge USAID, other federal agencies, the White House, and Members of Congress to support a more proactive approach to reducing pandemic risk.  Today we are struggling to control outbreaks of Ebola and the novel coronavirus, and while we don’t know which viruses will next attack us, we do know it is not a matter of if, but when, and we must do everything we can to prepare.  The more information we have about potential zoonotic viruses, the better able we will be to respond.  The stakes are immense.  Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives could be lost, and the amount of funding necessary to control it would be incalculable.    

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