A new strain of H3N2 influenza virus transmitted from pigs to humans has caused U.S. patient cases to spike in the past two weeks. During the same time period, an Ebola virus outbreak in Uganda killed at least 14 people. Both these outbreaks are demanding cooperation among scientists and political leaders. Back in 2009, the world faced a pandemic H1N1 flu virus outbreak that prompted an additional U.S. vaccination campaign that year and eventually spurred the President to declare swine flu as a national emergency. Now, with U.S. elections around the corner, voters should know how key candidates plan to address future pandemics and biosecurity threats, and whether elected politicians will fund research on these topics and take scientific findings and recommendations into account when making decisions.
To learn where politicians stand on this issue and 13 others, Scientific American has partnered with ScienceDebate.org and asked the presidential candidates—President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney—to address science and technology policy during the campaign. We are also asking key Congressional leaders eight of the 14 questions. For the past few weeks, I have been contacting media contacts at Congress to coax responses. (I can now hum stanzas of all hold music played on these politicians' phone lines.) I gave the Congressional leaders an August 24 deadline, and as yet only Rep. Henry Waxman's staff has responded with a promise to answer.
SA health and medicine editor Christine Gorman posted the full set of 14 questions here and examined the first three in detail on a weekly basis. Thus far, we've had some great discussion and I now want to know your thoughts on the fourth question:
Question #4 Pandemics and Biosecurity: Recent experiments show how avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the U.S. take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?
Recent research on avian flu strain H5N1 showed the virus has pandemic potential because it can fairly easily mutate and could become transmissible from person to person—though natural strains have yet to morph into such a threat. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity initially said in December 2011 that research papers on the virus’s specific mutations should not be published. Only after intense debate did scientists release the work to the public.
Pandemic responses requires level-headedness, but contagion can be unpredictable, so it is important that voters know how politicians plan to prepare for and respond to such potential crises. For instance, the very definition of a pandemic became political during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. A pandemic is essentially global outbreak—when a pathogen spreads from person to person and there is little or no immunity in the population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of our federal government and thus supported by taxpayer dollars, estimated the disease stuck between 43 million and 89 million people in the U.S., which was 14 to 29 percent of the population at the time.
While the CDC's plan to deal with emerging disease mostly refers to unintentionally spread pathogens, many of the government's policies focus on bioterrorism. On July 31, the White House released a National Strategy for Biosurveillance (pdf), which calls for a strategic implementation plan to be completed within 120 days. It is the latest of a series of orders and guidelines to direct response to a biological or radiological attack. The National Biosurvelliance Integration Center (NBIC) within the Department of Homeland Security aims to detect disease outbreaks early and gather information that will help direct the nation's response. However, the Government Accountability Office has reported several times that the NBIC is under-funded and understaffed. Will this funding be kept steady, cut or expanded in future years? Voters deserve an answer to this and related biosecurity questions.
Below is a list of the 32 Congressional leaders we are contacting this month. I encourage you to reach out to those Senators and Representatives hailing from your states and Congressional districts. Ask your Congressional representatives to respond to the eight questions (online here). Phone numbers and email forms are on the elected official's Web sites.
Lamar Alexander, R (TN), ranking member of Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
Timothy Bishop, D (NY-1), ranking member of House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
John Boehner, R (OH-8), speaker of House
Barbara Boxer, D (CA), chair of Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Jim DeMint, R (SC), member of Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchinson is retiring)
Michael Enzi, R (WY), ranking member of Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Dianne Feinstein, D (CA), chair of Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
Scott Garrett, R (New Jersey-5), vice chairman of House Committee on the Budget (chair Paul Ryan is Republican vice-presidential candidate)
Bob Gibbs, R (OH-18), chair of House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
Ralph Hall, R (TX-4), chair of House Committee on Science, Space and Technology
Tom Harkin, D (IA), chair of Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Doc Hastings, R (WA-4), chair of House Committee on Natural Resources
James Inhofe, R (OK), ranking member of Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Eddie Bernice Johnson, D (TX-30), ranking member of House Committee on Science, Space and Technology
Frank Lucas, R (OK-3), chair of House Committee on Agriculture
Edward J. Markey, D (MA-7), ranking member of House Committee on Natural Resources
Mitch McConnell, R (KT), Senate Minority Leader
John Mica, R (FL-7), chair of House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Lisa Murkowski, R (AL), ranking member of Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Patty Murray, D (WA), member of Senate Committee on the Budget (chair Kent Conrad is retiring)
Nancy Pelosi, D (CA-8), House Minority Leader
Collin Peterson, D (MN-7), ranking member of House Committee on Agriculture
Nick Rahall, D (WV-3), chair of House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Harry Reid, D (NV), Senate Majority Leader
Pat Roberts, R (KN), ranking member of Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
Jay Rockefeller, D (WV), chair of Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
Jeff Sessions, R (AL), ranking member of Senate Committee on the Budget
Debbie Stabenow, D (MI), chair of Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
Fred Upton, R (MI-6), chair of House Committee on Energy and Commerce
Chris Van Hollen, D (MD-8), ranking member of House Committee on the Budget
Henry Waxman, D (CA-30), ranking member of House Committee on Energy and Commerce
Ron Wyden, D (OR), member of Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (chair Jeff Bingaman is retiring)
Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.