Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin toured a military laboratory at Fort Detrick on Friday, just days after sending a letter to the U.S. secretary of defense asking why the Defense Department withheld payments to the lab.
Van Hollen and Cardin, along with four Maryland congressmen, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper after learning days before that the Department of Defense withheld a combined $104 million in payments from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
It is unclear why the funding is being withheld. Cardin (D-Md.) previously told The News-Post that it could be related to the USAMRIID research shutdown over the summer, when the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention halted work in the biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories.
USAMRIID is currently at partial operations as it continues to work with the Department of Defense and CDC, according to previous News-Post reporting. But since its workload decreased with the research halt, there is a chance it appeared it did not need as much funding, Cardin said.
After touring the lab Friday afternoon, Cardin said that he saw firsthand the work that USAMRIID does.
“Work done here is critically important to our defense, to our health and to the global community,” Cardin said.
During the tour, USAMRIID employees told him there are projects that are ready to move forward but cannot due to lack of funding. Withholding funding affects USAMRIID’s mission, he said.
“Whether we’re dealing with anthrax or we’re dealing with Ebola, we need to have that capacity,” he said. “And we were alarmed by the action of the Department of Defense that held up monies for these critically important programs and jeopardizes their mission.”
In a meeting for senators on the novel coronavirus, the work done at USAMRIID on Ebola was mentioned as part of the nation’s readiness in being able to respond to the disease, Cardin said.
The novel coronavirus highlights the need for USAMRIID, Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. Having USAMRIID at full capacity helps with responses to outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola and coronavirus, as well as the other research work done at the laboratory.
USAMRIID scientists have helped with the research behind vaccines and treatments for diseases like Ebola or tularemia. They also just helped with testing of a new smallpox vaccine.
“It makes no sense to hold up funding on vital research that’s not only for and can protect war fighters, but also for the public health,” Van Hollen said.
Withholding funds goes against the government’s previous actions of funding a new building for USAMRIID, Van Hollen said. USAMRIID has not moved into the new building yet.
USAMRIID did not get funding for the initial outfitting and transition for the new building in fiscal 2020, according to an overview of the Defense Health Program budget. The building, according to the budget, was expected to be completed in fiscal 2019.
“To threaten to cut back work in their current facility when we’re planning to dramatically expand capacities in the new facility makes no sense,” Van Hollen said.