Crucial government funding could help stop next pandemic

Texas Biomedical Research Institute receives BARDA funds for many proactive projects

SAN ANTONIO - – Research on vaccines and treatments for Ebola, COVID-19 and other pathogens is crucial for our health and safety. However, those products are for future use and usually don’t make money immediately.

Big pharmaceutical companies may not pick up these vaccines and therapies, so funding needs to come from elsewhere.

That’s where crucial government funding called BARDA comes in.

“The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) was established essentially as an emergency response arm in the Department of Health and Human Services,” said Cory Hallam, vice president of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

Hallam knows BARDA well since many of the Texas Biomed projects are supported by those funds.

He said the funding focuses on discovering therapies, vaccines, drugs and diagnostics in preparation for disease outbreaks.

An easy example is the COVID-19 vaccine’s mRNA technology, which has been around for decades but never had financial support to go commercial.

“The work of Dr. Karikó and her colleagues was essentially groundbreaking in pushing boundaries for many decades until it got to a level of maturity and contribution from other researchers that it could actually be deployed and then become the basis for what became the many vaccines for Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna,” Hallam explained.

He said that mRNA technology has now become a platform for many new medical opportunities to go after different viruses.

Texas Biomed also received BARDA funds to work on an ebola vaccine just deployed to Uganda, where there was a massive outbreak.

“Going back to 2014, there were deployments then on some of the Ebola work we were doing,” he said.

The ability for that immediate and life-saving response showed the importance of continued funding from sources like BARDA.

“The emergence of a new disease or a new pathogen in the world is not only increasing in probability as we grow in population and move into new areas. But the ability for that even asymptomatically to move anywhere in the world is essentially one airplane right away,” Hallam explained.

He said he’s proud so much important work is happening at Texas Biomed. Last month, it was recognized by a federal agency as the only prime contractor in Texas.

The designation allows the research institute to work at the federal level to protect against pandemics and bioterrorism. Fewer than 15 labs nationwide have this federal designation.

RELATED: Texas Biomedical Research Institute gets national recognition

“The recognition will up our ability to do more science with BARDA again, establishing better science to understand and treat these conditions, as well as a broader network that we can work with to actually help move those vaccines and therapies forward,” Hallam said.

Hallam said proactively looking forward will save countless lives and prevent entire economies from collapsing.

There is always the chance that government funding for BARDA could drop. However, Hallam said that given the public understanding of what a pandemic can do, the vital funding would likely continue long into the future.

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.