John Donnelly reports from a Capitol Hill briefing
WASHINGTON – The question was simple. You’re on an elevator. You’re standing next to a Tea Party member of Congress. What’s your elevator speech to persuade the U.S. representative that it’s important to invest in vaccines for the developing world?
At Thursday’s packed Hill briefing titled, Vaccines: The Best Shot For Our Health and Economy, which was moderated by Michael Gerson, the Washington Post columnist, ONE campaign fellow, and former chief speechwriter to President Bush, four panelists answered with almost no hesitation.
Phil Hosback, vice president of Immunization Policy and Government Relations for sanofi pasteur: “Vaccines provide one of our greatest returns on investment.”
Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director, Pan American Health Organization: “Vaccine preventable diseases are only a plane ride away. You are protecting your own children by protecting children elsewhere.”
Col. Julia A. Lynch, MD, director of the U.S. Military Infectious Disease Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research: “It’s a national security issue.”
Amie Batson, deputy assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development: “It’s the best of the U.S., we’re using our scientific base, and showing that we care.”
The event was the first in a series of briefings on vaccines in the coming two months, sponsored by the Global Health Council, Research!America and the ONE Campaign. It followed a related dinner the night before in which Research!America brought together senior U.S. officials, pharmaceutical representatives, academics and non-profit health organization leaders to talk about the importance of global health R&D for the economy. In this particular dinner, the focus was on one state, New Jersey.
The vaccines briefing, though, focused less on the economic benefit and more on the moral underpinning of scaling up life-saving immunizations.
Gerson, who became a leading voice in the Bush administration for the global AIDS initiative, which spent roughly $19 billion on AIDS in five years and has been credited for saving millions of lives, most in Africa, set the tone early.
He called vaccines “one of the greatest contributions to humankind.”
“An almost unknown agency, GAVI, has been supporting efforts that have prevented 5 million premature deaths,” Gerson said to the nearly 150 people in attendance at the Retired Officer’s Association, which sits across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building. “In the 20th century that was the measurement of genocide – a number in the millions. And now we are seeing health care progress made in that same increment, and that is an extraordinary achievement.”
Gerson said support for expanding vaccine access, or development of new vaccines, could be made with a humanitarian argument. “It’s a real moral case here – what America should do and be in the world,” he said.
USAID’s Batson, who has been one of the administration’s three leaders on its Global Health Initiative, underscored points made by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in a NIH speech this week by saying that making vaccines available to more children in the world would signal a major accomplishment.
“Going forward, we see this as one of our top priority areas where we can have an impact,” Batson said. “We will be putting together a vaccine team. We will work with civil society to put in place systems – PDPs (product development partnerships) that exist, like IAVI (International AIDS Vaccine Initiative) and MVI (the Malaria Vaccine Initiative), and working more closely with GAVI. We’ll be looking to see how we can increase our investments.”
She continued, amplifying her elevator speech: “Vaccines exemplify some of the best of the U.S. We play a leading role in science … with the NIH, universities, the biotech industry, and the vaccine industry itself. In vaccines, we have an evidence-based mechanism delivery that produces real results. The benefit that I feel for my daughter is the same benefit to a woman in rural Africa. Because of that, her child is as equally protected as mine.”
But the speakers, and audience members, also sounded notes of realism. Alex Palacios, GAVI’s special representative in Washington, wanted more perspective on the political climate and future funding for vaccines.
“We are seeing such an unusual dynamic now, and speed is part of the challenge,” Palacios said, addressing Gerson. “Do you think we have ability in the coming months to reconstruct bipartisan support for global health and avoid the financial crunch?”
Gerson drew on his experience in the Bush administration. “The PEPFAR coalition was a model in many ways,” he said. “We had a Republican President, we had Joe Biden very active in it, we had traditional global health activists and religious groups, all pushing in the same direction. It’s difficult right now. There are a lot of new people on Capitol Hill. There’s something like only 53 members of the Senate there when PEPFAR was passed so they don’t have the history, they don’t have the knowledge.”
He added: “You are right, we are in a race with the fiscal timeline and the educational effort to show that this is a worthwhile investment. I don’t think it is a hopeless cause but I think the timeline is fairly limited.”
John Donnelly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.