WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday on Ebola, government health workers were unable to answer specific questions posed by Republicans skeptical of President Obama’s decision to deploy 3,000 U.S. troops to Liberia to combat the disease.
None of the government health witnesses testifying were able to answer basic questions, including how many physicians and nurses would be among the 3,000 troops allocated or what type of protective equipment and training would be employed to prevent infection.
The witnesses explained the State Department was in charge of the military mission, not the Pentagon.
“Who do we call when there is a problem with the troops in Liberia?” asked Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a physician and a guest on the committee.
“You call USAID,” replied Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID.
She explained the situation in Liberia is a medical emergency, and USAID is directing the Obama administration’s response in West Africa.
USAID reports to the State Department, not to the Department of Defense.
As WND reported, retired Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin has charged that sending American troops to combat Ebola in Liberia is “an absolute misuse of the U.S. military.”
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., began the questioning by asking the government health witnesses whether or not the Obama administration has allocated sufficient funding to support the military mission in Liberia. Smith also asked what steps the administration plans to take to protect the health of the troops deployed there.
Unable to directly answer Smith’s questions, Lindborg stressed the U.S. wants to provide “command and control” in Liberia, coordinating international efforts to provide physicians and nurses.
Lindborg promised to deliver after the hearing a breakdown of the roles the 3,000 U.S. troops would play.
She explained the goal of the military mission is to establish a Joint Force Command headquartered in Liberia to serve as a regional command for U.S. military activities in the region. The plan is also to establish an Ebola “training boot camp” to train up to 500 local health care workers weekly and to set up a 25-bed hospital in Liberia open to all health care aid workers in West Africa who contract the disease.
“When will the 3,000 military be in theater?” Smith asked. “Can you also reassure the American people that the military deployed to Liberia will have adequate protective medical equipment and training to make sure our troops do not get infected with Ebola while in the region”
Lindborg was unable to provide Smith precise timelines for the arrival of U.S. troops nor was she able to detail the protective medical equipment and training the troops will be provided prior to arrival.
Coming to Linborg’s defense, Dr. Beth Bell, director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained the CDC has prepared material regarding what medical personnel dispatched to West Africa to combat Ebola need to know before they arrive in the disease hot zone.
In her prepared opening statement, Bell appeared to minimize the risk presented by the current outbreak, stressing Ebola is “not a significant health threat to the United States.”
She argued Ebola is not easily transmitted and does not spread from people who are not ill She also noted cultural norms that contribute to the spread of the disease in Africa, such as burial customs, are not a factor in the U.S.
“There is a window of opportunity to tamp down the spread of this disease, but that window is closing,” Bell testified. “The best way to prevent the Ebola virus from reaching the United States is to contain the virus outbreak in West Africa now.”
She told the committee that the $600 million the United Nations believes will be needed to get supplies to West African countries to get the virus under control is “an underestimate.”
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained the NAAID has begun active human testing of various alternative therapies and experimental drugs to combat Ebola. The effort includes working with Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Inc. to develop MB-003, a combination of three antibodies that has successfully prevented Ebola from developing in monkeys when administered as late as 48 hours after exposure.
In combination with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, NIAID is testing an experimental vaccine that uses a chimpanzee virus similar to the common cold virus, Chimp Adenovirus 3 (Cad3), as a carrier, or vector, to introduce the Ebola virus genes into the body, with the goal of stimulating an immune response.
Fauci, under questioning from the committee, argued that while it is possible the Ebola virus could mutate in Liberia to become airborne, it is unlikely.
“The American public should not lose sleep over the possibility Ebola will go airborne,” he said. “But we have to contain the virus right now, because the more the virus escalating, infecting additional people, the greater the chance the virus will mutate.”