Keep Ebola Off the Midterm Ballot

Don't blame Tom Frieden and the CDC.

The debate in the U.S. about the Ebola outbreak illustrates the dangers of mixing infectious diseases and midterm election campaigns.

Democrats have used the panic over increasing cases in the U.S. to castigate Republicans for federal spending cuts, arguing that they have hampered the federal government's ability to respond to the outbreak. Some conservatives have countered that the epidemic could have been better controlled had not the government slowed the approval process for vaccines or treatments with regulatory red tape.

Say this much: Both arguments miss the point by almost equally wide margins. Despite the parties' best efforts, Ebola is not a political issue -- nor should it be.

The entire premise on which both arguments are based -- that U.S. policy left the country vulnerable to the outbreak -- is at best shaky, if not outright false. The government's response to Ebola has been measured and responsible, organized by a government department that no less a conservative authority than the Wall Street Journal editorial page has called "more productive and better managed than most federal agencies."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has worked tirelessly to contain both the epidemic and the public fear about it, going so far as to post advice to pet owners. In response to unexpected infections of two health-care workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, the CDC is readying mobile response teams to travel anywhere in the country a new Ebola patient shows up, and it is looking to designate specific hospitals in every state as Ebola treatment centers.

What about the lack of a vaccine or treatments? The substance of the arguments isn't exactly compelling, either. The reason that no drugs were available for Ebola until this year's outbreak has almost nothing to do with the government and almost everything to do with the market: Ebola's ranking on the list of global health threats simply didn't merit the investment.

All this said, there is room for a broader debate about the government's role in developing and approving drugs, for rare and not-so-rare diseases. (Malaria alone, for example, kills more people every day than Ebola has claimed since it emerged in 1976.) Any regulatory process can always work better, just as researchers for treatments for infectious diseases will always want more money.

What's more, public-health policy may be an area in which the government wants a little bit of inefficiency. Ebola does not represent a major threat to the U.S., but it may merit investment on other grounds. Authorities may see it as a security threat (however unlikely) or support research into a vaccine because it demonstrates that diseases in other countries can spread suddenly and unexpectedly.

This is not the debate, alas, that Ebola has begotten. Instead there is the tiresome back-and-forth that both minimizes and exaggerates the government's role. Not only does it fail on its own terms, but it also represents a cramped and parochial response to what is, after all, a global crisis.

--Editors: Christopher Flavelle, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net