WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) said at a Senate Foreign Relations-Africa/Global Health Subcommittee hearing that U.S. resources designated to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa and around the world should not be re-purposed to combat the spread of the Zika virus in South and Central America. The Obama Administration announced yesterday that it plans to transfer $589 million to target the Zika virus, $510 million of which was originally allocated to fight the Ebola epidemic to address the Zika outbreak.
Transcript of Senator Coons’ opening remarks below:
Senator Coons: The principle point you are making is that Ebola is not over and that the significant amount of resources that the United States has appropriated to try and address Ebola should not be redirected elsewhere. That frankly we should also be investing simultaneously in a response to Zika and that all the conditions that led Ebola to go from largely unknown to a significant challenge, to a global concern, are still there. When you say, Dr. Panjabi, it's zoonotic illness, there is an animal reservoir of Ebola that has probably been active in West Africa 40 years we've now discovered. There have probably been a whole series of small outbreaks in remote villages that the rest of the world never knew about. And there is of course the opportunity, the possibility that this virus will mutate and become more lethal. What we see on the ground in Liberia, in Guinea, and Sierra Leone, economies that haven't yet fully recovered, may not recover for a number of years. Grassroots health care systems that need to be fully built out, and of course, we commend President Sirleaf for her terrific work in leading the effort to deploy community health workers across the country, but there is so much more to be done. Porous borders and a lack of any sort of a modern health care infrastructure in the remote places in these three affected countries.
One lesson I think that was most poignant at the time was that at the moment when Ebola broke out into Nigeria, in the Port Harcourt area, I think there was a global collective gasp at the real prospect that Ebola would get loose into major metropolitan areas into the international travel community and metastasize globally. And it didn't. It was contained quickly and well. And in no small part because of course the brave public health workers in Nigeria, volunteers, and the infrastructure, but also investments made by the United States through our PEPFAR program, through our efforts against polio so there was some of the labs and the communications and the infrastructure and the public health systems.
So if I hear you right, your central message to us across many concerns is this: Don't stop -- to the United States -- investing and making sure that we've addressed all the things that because they were not addressed, led Ebola to be so lethal, so quickly, so broadly. Have a clear path forward on vaccine testing and development. Have a clearly developed ethical structure, and incentive structures, Médecins Sans Frontières, you've shared with us that concern and I think a very powerful and important one. We need to have a framework for data sharing and vaccine development that's proactive, not reactive. It's very hard to do effective field trials in the middle of disaster response. As Dr. Panjabi has said, continue to build out grassroots community health worker networks across the region and the country. And as Dr. Knight has said, we have public sector partners all over the continent and the world who can and should be proactively engaged in planning for the next pandemic. Zika, which is a challenge, is not what I think we are most concerned about as a group, which is a truly lethal global pandemic.
Ron Klain, who I think served admirably as the President's Ebola coordinator, has recently published a piece in which he raises the specter of a truly global pandemic that would be faster moving, more lethal, and more readily shared than Ebola was. And he makes a number of suggestions, so let me move to asking what you see about both lessons learned, the need for our continued investment and the suggestions that you have made and he has made.
And let me not close my opening without saying that it was the people of Liberia in my experience there in December 2014, volunteers from around the world who were really on the front lines and making the life saving difference and in 500 cases, giving their lives as health workers. But it was as Senator Markey said, the United States that was the indispensable nation that brought to bear at a critical moment in the rainy season when there was a near collapse of the nation of Liberia, absolutely essential logistical supplies, resources, funding, trained personnel that helped Liberians turn the corner. This was, I think, a moment of great partnership and of great leadership, both by the United States, the international community, and by thousands of volunteers from around the world. But there are critical lessons unlearned about how to reform the WHO, about how to reform the accountability and transparency of data, about how to improve grassroots health care networks of fragile nations, and about how to plan for the next outbreak.
So let me turn if I might to the issues raised by Ron Klain. He has suggested that within the United States, we should have an identified National Security Council coordinator to manage interagency responses. He suggested investment in just the sort of CDC that Senator Isakson was asking about -- regional CDCs, Africa first, but in other geographies that have the capacity to mobilize cutting-edge analytical capabilities-- field tests, and to coordinate field trials. He suggests that the global health security agenda, the Global Health Security Act and the agenda that it would authorize, needs to move forward, that we need to continue as a country to invest at the grassroots. And he suggests a parallel to FEMA that would be essentially a public health emergency management agency.
As was mentioned in passing, one of the things that most impressed me about the response I was able to see in December of 2014 was its coordination. There were dozens and dozens of nonprofits, of government ministries, of UN agencies, of US entities, and there was a regular, clear, weekly meeting with a published agenda, with everybody in the same room at the same place at the same time using the national incident management system that's been built out in the United States by FEMA to coordinate response. To identify and prioritize investment. That was truly encouraging, and a number of the folks from the DART team at AID said across a half dozen of other disasters, they'd never seen that work so well. That was partly due to private sector engagement and leadership in terms of skills and capability, it was partly U.S., but it was also a reflection of the strong Liberian-American community. There were dozens and dozens of Liberian-Americans who had returned to help lead the government and ministry responses.