How would Congress respond to a deadly biological attack?

Story Highlights Risk to U.S. economy would be significant if bio-terror attacks were to occur Cost of the legislation would be manageable if the economy is strong, but would ramp up rapidly if it…

How would Congress respond to a deadly biological attack?

Story Highlights Risk to U.S. economy would be significant if bio-terror attacks were to occur

Cost of the legislation would be manageable if the economy is strong, but would ramp up rapidly if it contracted

The bill would require the federal government to fund the teams of people and companies with expertise in devising a vaccine or medical treatment.

The ongoing toll of a pair of deadly outbreaks of H1N1 flu and the deadly E. coli bacteria in vegetables has convinced U.S. lawmakers that a bill to help businesses and workers cope with a major biological terror attack is needed.

A bipartisan group of two dozen senators have introduced legislation that would send $5 billion to states, territories and tribes to pay for “threat reduction” teams that would assemble to respond to mass casualties from such an attack and assist in the recovery effort.

The recipients would be from civil defense and emergency preparedness to health care, food and hospitality industries, arts and entertainment venues, manufacturing, transportation and freight handling sectors, according to a committee summary of the bill, which was announced last month.

“Before adjourning Congress, we must take the time to carefully consider additional tools for our nation to defend against an attack, and the Economic Injury Disaster Relief Act provides an important tool in our effort to protect our workers, families and communities from a severe outbreak or pandemic that would kill or injure thousands,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a sponsor of the bill, along with Democratic leaders Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

In a statement, the bill’s co-sponsors said the funding proposal for the “Next Great Pandemic” Act would cost about $20 billion over 10 years. The funding proposal would be beneficial if the U.S. economy is strong, but would quickly ramp up in the event of a potential contraction, they said.

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“A financial approach that does not require any changes to existing program funding structure should ensure bipartisan support for this critical initiative,” they said.

Contrasting views

The bill comes at a time when there are renewed calls to increase incentives for businesses to prepare for natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Critics say that the cost of such preparations can be prohibitive, especially since businesses tend to view natural disasters as “one-off events,” according to Cathy O’Neil, director of disaster preparedness for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“I certainly don’t think companies are making preparations for tomorrow’s economic crisis,” she said. “We’re not doing a good job engaging our members.”

She said that the Chamber has not taken a position on the new bill, though it supports coordination with states, territories and tribes on the kind of response they would need.

Despite the bill’s focus on an annual economic event rather than a natural disaster, a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in April estimated the total cost of the first-ever long-term fiscal costs of a pandemic to be $200 billion to $400 billion.

“There is a relatively high risk, therefore, that a pandemic … would have a significant adverse impact on the U.S. economy if it were to occur,” the CBO wrote. “In particular, given the large number of cases that would occur, a sharp increase in the disease’s prevalence or severity would affect the number of individuals affected, health-care utilization, and health-care provider revenue.”

Related: Deadly E. coli outbreak leaves people sick in Ontario

The bill does not specify a particular strain of biological attack, though the flu and E. coli outbreaks are listed in the brief statement issued by the co-sponsors.

Despite the speculation about what a new animal, such as a mosquito or another invasive species, could do to the U.S. food supply, that has never materialized, according to Department of Agriculture Inspector General J. Russell George. He also said that the costs of bringing pandemic containment measures up to speed are low because of existing grants, expertise, data and other tools that are available now.

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