Opinion | Congress has not stepped up to fight covid-19 or the next pandemic
When the coronavirus pandemic reached peaks of suffering, ambition ran high to confront it and prepare for future outbreaks. In 2021, President Biden warned that “future biological threats could be far worse, and we are not adequately prepared,” and in March he proposed $88.2 billion over five years to build up biodefense and pandemic preparedness. Mr. Biden also sought $9.25 billion to fund new vaccines and therapeutics.
Mr. Biden’s proposals never got any traction in the last Congress. The public sense that life is returning to normal — a mood that Mr. Biden encouraged — certainly played a role. This leaves the nation stuck in a cycle of panic and neglect. The government’s purchase of hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines and treatments, and free distribution, is now over; others, mostly health insurers, will have to pay for the next shot, if one is even developed.
Neither the outgoing Congress nor Mr. Biden rose to the occasion to create a national bipartisan commission on the pandemic similar to the 9/11 commission. After the death of 1 million Americans, such an investigation would have highlighted lessons learned from the chaotic pandemic response, shown the way forward on future threats and helped unravel the mystery of the virus’s origins. As it now stands, separate probes are planned in Congress’s more partisan and divisive atmosphere.
The last Congress did take some modest steps. The $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill Mr. Biden signed incorporates bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and ranking Republican Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) that would make structural adjustments in government agencies. It creates a permanent White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy with up to 25 staffers. Starting in 2025, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be subject to Senate confirmation, which might elevate the position but also make it more political. The omnibus spending bill provides for modest but necessary increases in spending for the national biomedical stockpile to avoid shortages in the event of another pandemic. The legislation encourages the federal government to organize more sharing of genomic sequencing data and to put more emphasis on developing covid nasal vaccines, on which China has been making strides. The legislation includes $1.5 billion for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), an advanced technology agency modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and urges the Department of Health and Human Services to exploit artificial intelligence to assist in “accelerated vaccines, rapid therapeutics, global bio-threat surveillance, and rapid fielding” of pandemic responses.
What’s needed, however, is more long-term vision. The covid pandemic was the worst public health catastrophe in 100 years but could easily happen again — and soon. A system of global genomic surveillance — an early warning radar for disease — ought to be a high priority. So should research to create a coronavirus vaccine that would work against all variants. The next chance to think big is now, with the arrival of a new Congress.
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