Lawmakers express lingering questions over strategic national stockpile transfer from CDC

A nurse preparing a medical injection
The stockpile would shift to the control of the Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. (Getty/scyther5)

Lawmakers expressed lingering questions about the planned transition of control of the Strategic National Stockpile from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a House oversight hearing on pandemic preparedness on Friday.

The Strategic National Stockpile, or SNS, is a $7 billion repository of drugs and supplies to be deployed in the case of an infectious disease outbreak or bioterrorism attack.  Under a provision in the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, the stockpile would shift to the control of the Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, or ASPR.

It was originally proposed as one of President Trump's budget cuts and has been praised by Republicans as a way to streamline public health emergency response measures. But groups like the American Public Health Association said the "public health community has serious concerns with the proposal."

Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., asked what was being done to ensure that the SNS would be available as soon as the transfer of control took place starting Oct. 1 in case of a public health emergency.

RELATED: Bill aims to shift control of National Strategic Stockpile away from CDC

"We have five different working groups that are meeting weekly; some even have daily communication to understand the various components," said Rick Bright, Ph.D., deputy assistant secretary for ASPR. "They are understanding how we maintain and sustain the best science and expertise that is currently in the SNS, understanding how we're building and augmenting relationships with states and locals to ensure that we sustain our robust SNS enterprise."

Anne Schuchat, M.D., principal deputy director of CDC, testified that an administrative decision has already been made to transfer the stockpile and that the CDC is already working to ensure the transition to ASPR goes smoothly.

"I think the critical areas we are going to focus on are to make sure state and local support is seamless," Schuchat said. She said they are also working to ensure that the clinical guidance of experts that have developed the SNS will be preserved through the transition.

Laboratory safety

Lawmakers also expressed concerns about how both the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have continued to address laboratory safety regarding the storage and study of dangerous disease materials. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who is chairman of the committee, pointed to reports of mishandling of anthrax and bird flu samples in 2014. At the time, officials at both agencies agreed to create new offices to centralize and elevate oversight of laboratory safety, with the directors of those offices reporting directly to the agency heads, he said.

RELATED: CDC requests $350M to replace facility that handles deadly pathogens

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., asked Rear Adm. Denise Hinton, the FDA's chief scientist, who was testifying before the committee, about the utilization of the newly established Office of Laboratory Science and Safety (OLSS) created in response to the safety lapses. In particular, Griffith also asked how many of the 56 labs the FDA oversees were inspected by the OLSS. He also asked why the office had only a handful of employees.

"No inspections by OLSS in the last year. However, the labs have been inspected by other entities," Hinton said. There were two noted laboratory-acquired infections in the last year, she said, but no potential exposures to threat agents.

Hinton acknowledged that only three permanent positions had been filled, with three additional staff positions provided in that office since it was established. She said the office would be able to reach full staffing if funding is approved for it in the upcoming budget proposal.

Griffith asked why the FDA told committee staff last week that the agency has decided to reorganize and OLSS will no longer report directly to the FDA commissioner but instead report to the chief scientist again. "Why did the FDA reverse course in less than a year?" Griffith asked. 

Hinton said the FDA has since been able to observe where the OLSS would best fit.

"Within the Office of the Chief Scientist which reports into the office of the commissioner and the commissioner, we work on cross-cutting cross scientific issues to include those within the laboratory scientist space. We thought OLSS would best fit there under my direct supervision on their day to day activities."