The Ebola outbreak has drawn global attention to the indisputable need to prevent suffering and death from spreading further. If there is any positive aspect, it is that the virus is only transmitted by contact with infected blood or bodily fluids. In contrast, there are other, more easily transmissible infectious diseases lurking — like pandemic influenza virus. Unlike Ebola, pandemic flu can rapidly spread around the world in a matter of weeks.

Dr. Brett P. Giroir, CEO Texas A&M Health Science Center

Dr. Brett P. Giroir, CEO
Texas A&M Health Science Center

The more deadly alter ego of seasonal flu, pandemic influenza, is caused by the emergence of a brand-new strain of the virus. Because humans have little to no pre-existing immunity, such a new virus will spread rapidly, infecting nearly all who encounter it. A recent example of such contagion was the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, which infected approximately 25 percent of the Earth’s population within a matter of months. It is only because of fortune, or perhaps fate, that the deaths caused by this virus were relatively low, so that worldwide mortality was approximately 500,000, instead of 50 to 100 million like the 1918 pandemic.

A severe pandemic would disrupt the United States far beyond health and mortality repercussions. High rates of illness ranging from 25 to 30 percent of the population would cripple crucial services, business activities, education and the movement of goods and services nationwide and globally — ultimately leading to severe economic and homeland security consequences.

As H1N1 reached a peak in June 2009, with all 50 states in the United States reporting cases of infection, the federal government began procurement plans to more effectively address the need for highly flexible, adaptive domestic manufacturing capabilities that would essentially “take pandemic influenza off the table” and also have the full capabilities to respond to emerging infections, such as Ebola or MERS.

Thanks to this foresight, the nation will soon be prepared to quickly respond to influenza and other infectious threats because of the implementation of the three government-funded biosecurity centers, one of which resides at the Texas A&M Health Science Center in Bryan-College Station.

Founded on an initial $285.6 million contract establishing a partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Texas A&M Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing will supply our nation with 50 million doses of pandemic influenza vaccine within 4 months and first doses within 12 weeks. The center must also develop vaccines, biologics and therapeutics much more rapidly, efficiently and cost-effectively than ever before to address threats ranging from Ebola and plague to the next unforeseen contagion.

As the only center of its kind led by an academic institution, Texas A&M’s center combines the expertise of a renowned research university and health science center, innovation of emerging biotechnology firms, and the development and manufacturing capabilities of global pharmaceutical companies, including GSK and others. On Sept. 18, the state and nation reached an important milestone with the completion of Texas A&M’s inaugural manufacturing facility simultaneous with the site dedication of its Pandemic Influenza Vaccine Facility, on track for construction completion in one year.

Although three years from reaching full capability, the center is ready to respond to the Ebola outbreak today, and already the U.S. government has tasked Texas A&M with proposing plans for developing and manufacturing the nation’s new anthrax vaccine. The center will be our defense against what is perhaps an even bigger threat than that consuming the headlines today — a biological attack using an organism never before seen by scientists throughout the world.

Indeed, the stakes are frighteningly high for Americans who face the potential of a biological terroristic attack that eclipses even nuclear threat. Americans must continue to insist that our government remains focused on these persistent dangers, and not just raise the banner intermittently during global scares. A reactive strategy will never secure our health, or that of our children and grandchildren. We must recognize the stark reality of the threats we face and accept that some of the most frightening weapons cannot be seen by the naked eye. U.S. public health preparedness is one of the most important national security issues of our time, and we must undertake an elevation of readiness as the world becomes a smaller and more infectiously interconnected place.

Giroir is a physician scientist and chief executive officer of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and former director of the Defense Sciences Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

This op-ed originally appeared in Austin American-Statesman.

— Sloane Williams

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